Changes in Emotional Reactivity and Distress Tolerance Among Heavy Drinking Adolescents During Sustained Abstinence

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Abstract

Background:

Negative affect and low distress tolerance have been associated with increased likelihood of alcohol consumption and relapse. This study utilized the Paced Auditory Serial Attention Test–Computerized Version (PASAT-C) to examine affective reactivity, cognitive performance, and distress tolerance during early abstinence among heavy drinking adolescents.

Methods:

Participants, ages 16 to 18 (50% female), were 23 heavy episodic drinking youth (HED) and 23 demographically matched, nondrinking teens (CON). Both groups were drawn from the same schools and assessed at 3 time points: HED was first studied within 10 days (M = 4.26, SD = 4.4) of heavy episodic drinking and then at two 2-week intervals over 4 subsequent weeks of abstinence from alcohol and drugs. CON were studied at the same 2-week intervals.

Results:

From the findings, it was observed that HED responded with greater emotional response to the PASAT-C (i.e., greater increases in frustration and irritability and greater decreases in happiness) at the initial assessment, but their affective responses diminished with sustained abstinence. CON and HED task performance did not differ at the initial assessment or across time. HED showed faster task discontinuation times to the PASAT-C at the first assessment, and both groups reduced task persistence across testings. Among HED, greater lifetime and recent alcohol consumption, alcohol-induced blackouts, and withdrawal symptoms were associated with increases in negative affect with PASAT-C exposure. Earlier age of onset of alcohol use was linked to poorer performance.

Conclusions:

Heavy episodic drinking adolescents demonstrated heightened emotional reactivity and poorer distress tolerance to a cognitively challenging task during early abstinence. The combination of elevated negative affect and low distress tolerance may place adolescents at a heightened risk of escalations in or return to alcohol involvement.

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