Alexandra Elissavet Bakou is a third year PhD candidate in the University of Exeter, Psychology Department working under the supervision of Professor Lee Hogarth and Professor Kim Wright. Her research aims to explore brief interventions that may protect hazardous drinkers from alcohol relapses triggered by negative emotions such as stress. Alexandra has worked in the homeless sector before, managing a small shelter for homeless individuals suffering from a mental health condition. Alexandra holds an MSc. in Clinical Neurosciences from University College London and a BSc. in Psychology from Panteion University, Athens.
Brief breath counting training protects against stress-induced alcohol-seeking in hazardous drinkers
Background: Mindfulness therapy is thought to build resilience to stress induced alcohol-seeking, but this claim needs more support. The current study tested whether briefly training one component of mindfulness – breath counting – would reduce hazardous community drinkers’ sensitivity to noise stress induced increases in alcohol-seeking behaviour.
Method: Eighty five hazardous drinkers recruited in pubs self-reported as ‘not at all’ or ‘mildly intoxicated’. Baseline alcohol seeking was measured by percentage choice to view alcohol versus food thumbnail pictures in two-alternative forced choice trials, followed by a 6-minute audio file which trained either breath counting or recited a popular science book. Stress was induced by 70dB industrial noise while alcohol choice was measured again. The breath counting group were told to deploy this technique in the stress test.
Results: Noise stress increased alcohol choice over baseline in non-intoxicated participants who received the control intervention (p=.01) but not the breath counting intervention (p=.37; interaction; p=.009), demonstrating a protective effect of breath counting. By contrast, in mildly intoxicated participants, stress did not increase alcohol choice in either the breath counting (p=.17), or control intervention group (p=.37; interaction; p=.11), possibly indicating a stress-damping effect of alcohol.
Conclusion: Deployment of a briefly trained breath counting technique abolished noise stress induced alcohol-seeking in non-intoxicated hazardous drinkers. Mindfulness therapy may achieve its therapeutic impact on drinking outcomes via this mechanism, and brief breath counting training may have therapeutic utility in its own right.