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Cognitive theories and undergraduate drinking: Examining the effects of anxiety sensitivity and social norms

The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 20 deaths are related to alcohol use. Drinking is usually at its heaviest during young adulthood, and the majority of undergraduate students drink. Heavy drinking during this time can be a big problem, as people have responsibilities like attending class and working part-time, and can later lead to problems like underemployment and addiction. Anxiety sensitivity (AS) is the fear of experiencing anxiety. Tension reduction theory suggests that people high in AS are more likely to drink heavily, because they use alcohol to lower anxiety and feel calmer. However, the association is not straight-forward, and research is mixed. It makes sense that those high in AS drink to cope, but on the other hand, these people may avoid drinking because alcohol has effects that resemble symptoms of anxiety, such as a racing heart. Therefore, it would seem that other factors are at play. Those high in AS must look past the negative effects of alcohol and instead drink for emotional relief. Impulsivity is perhaps what pushes these people past mixed feelings about drinking. Similarly, individuals may drink because they think that others approve of drinking. The theory of planned behaviour suggests that believing that others approve of heavy drinking may put those high in AS at risk for drinking. The goal of the current study is to clarify the effect of AS on alcohol use and related problems. This will be done by considering the impact of impulsivity, injunctive norms (perceived approval of risky drinking), and alcohol-related thoughts. Study 1 will examine the combined effects of AS and impulsivity on alcohol outcomes, and how thoughts about alcohol help explain this link. Study 2 will examine the combined effects of AS, impulsivity, and injunctive norms on alcohol outcomes, and how changes in intention to drink over time help explain this link. We expect that high AS will lead to alcohol outcomes, but only when impulsivity is high, and that reasons for drinking will explain this link (Study 1). We also expect that AS will lead to alcohol use and problems, but only when both impulsivity and perceived approval of drinking are high, and that intention to drink will explain this link. So far, we have our data for Study 1, and for the first assessment for Study 2. For Study 1, 205 participants completed online surveys assessing AS, impulsivity, drinking motives, and alcohol use/problems. Early results show positive associations between alcohol outcomes and both AS and impulsivity. For Study 2, 1126 first year undergraduates completed surveys assessing AS, impulsivity, injunctive norms, drinking intentions, and alcohol use/problems, and the survey will be completed twice more, in 6- and 12-months’ time. This research may influence how we think about, and thus prevent and intervene in, problematic drinking in young adults, especially in those high in AS and impulsivity.