Stress, vulnerability and adult alcohol relapse

J Stud Alcohol. 1995 Sep;56(5):538-45. doi: 10.15288/jsa.1995.56.538.


Objective: Alcoholics experiencing highly threatening or chronic psychosocial stress following treatment are more likely to relapse than abstaining individuals not experiencing such stress. Expanding upon this stress-relapse hypothesis, we predicted that individual risk and protective characteristics would contribute to vulnerability to relapse in alcoholic men confronted with significant life adversity. The present investigation examined the relationship between psychosocial vulnerability and return to drinking.

Method: A group of abstinent male alcoholics (N = 67) who experienced marked life adversity that posed a severe and/or chronic threat participated in this study. Men completed a psychosocial assessment first as an inpatient in treatment for alcohol dependence, and again at 3 months and 1 year following discharge.

Results: Among alcoholic men exposed to severe psychosocial stressors, those with higher composite psychosocial vulnerability scores were more likely to subsequently relapse than those with lower vulnerability scores. Additionally, men who improved in psychosocial functioning following treatment had better outcomes than men whose vulnerability increased. In particular, coping, self-efficacy and social support most consistently predicted relapse among this sample of severely stressed abstaining alcoholics.

Conclusions: These findings supported the stress-vulnerability model of relapse. Results indicated that improvement in psychosocial domains (e.g., coping skills, social networks, perceived ability to tolerate relapse-risk situations) enhanced the ability of these men to remain abstinent despite severe stress. This study highlights the importance of cognitive and behavioral interventions for increasing improvement in these psychosocial domains.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Alcoholism / psychology
  • Alcoholism / rehabilitation*
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Personality Assessment
  • Recurrence
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Support
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Temperance / psychology
  • Treatment Outcome