Emotions come and go. Sometimes we can even experience several contradictory ones at the same time. How we think about and react to feelings – our own and others’ – is called “meta-emotion” by psychologists.
Meta-emotions can serve as re-enforcers of positive states and amplifiers of negative ones. In some cases, these once-removed reactions can hit as hard as their triggers.
In a 2013 Psychology of Addictive Behaviors study, University of Arkansas researchers examined the knock-on effects. They concluded that meta-emotions might actually have a bigger influence on inappropriate drinking than a person’s initial feelings.
Using Drinking As a Coping Mechanism
Adults and teenagers have a range of potential motivations for their initial and continuing involvement in alcohol consumption. For example, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism lists reasons for teen drinking that include genetic inheritance of a predisposition toward alcohol use, preexisting expectations about the pleasures of alcohol consumption, a relative lack of sensitivity to hangovers and other short-term consequences of drinking, the presence of certain antisocial personality traits and a general tendency among adolescents to take part in risky behaviors.
Like adults, adolescents may also start drinking in response to the presence of certain unwanted or unpleasant emotional states. In these cases, the effects of alcohol are intended to act as a coping mechanism that diminishes the impact of negative emotions or otherwise distract a drinker from his or her emotional situation. However, as a rule, using alcohol in this way is both risky and ineffective. Drinkers who attempt to employ alcohol as a coping mechanism can simultaneously decrease their sense of emotional well-being and sharply increase their chances of developing serious problems with diagnosable alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction.
The Impact of Meta-Emotions
Anxiety is one of the negative emotional states that can lead to the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism. In the study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, the University of Arkansas researchers compared the impact of anxiety to the impact of meta-emotional reactions to anxiousness on the chances of using alcohol for emotional coping . They undertook this project with the help of 544 college students making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. These students provided the researchers with ongoing information on their emotional states, as well as information on the drinking behaviors that coincided with these emotional states at any given point in time.
After completing their comparisons, the researchers found that both direct experiences of anxiety and meta-emotional reactions to anxiety tend to increase the chances that a college student will use drinking as a coping mechanism. However, while direct experiences of anxiety are only roughly associated with using alcohol for emotional coping, meta-emotional reactions to anxiety are fairly directly associated with using alcohol for this purpose.
As a result of their findings, the authors of the study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors believe that meta-emotional reactions may actually play a more important role in encouraging the use of drinking as a coping mechanism than the initial emotions that trigger those reactions. In effect, drinkers who use/abuse alcohol for this purpose may have an inability to accept the existence of their unpleasant emotional states. The study’s authors specifically note the need for future researchers to reproduce their work in larger, more thoroughly controlled projects. If these projects support their findings, they believe that they may have discovered a unique, unexpected explanation for alcohol-related coping behaviors. At some point, doctors and public health officials may be able to use this information to improve the detection and prevention of problematic alcohol consumption in both teenagers and young adults.