Our recent study is the first to show how stressors are related to serious consequences of alcohol use in military service members, and how psychological resilience, or the ability to “bounce back” after setbacks, protects against these effects.
We found that the more stressors – and the more severe the stressors – the greater the number of serious alcohol-related behaviors and consequences soldiers reported; when we looked at this relationship more closely, we found that this was not true for soldiers who scored highest on measures of psychological resilience.
Why are these findings significant?
There are three main reasons that these findings are important. First, because the United States has been involved in military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, soldiers have been experiencing increased stress, particularly those in the National Guard and Reserves, who have taken on increased or different duties, including deployments. Second, we know that excessive alcohol use is a concern in the military and that extreme stress is related to increased alcohol misuse. Third, research is showing that psychological resilience can be protective against a number of poor outcomes and that we can increase resilience through training.
The current study provides evidence on the power of psychological resilience. In soldiers with the highest levels of psychological resilience, those with more stress did not report more alcohol-related behaviors and consequences – for example, driving a car after drinking too much to drive safely or getting into physical fights when drinking. Soldiers who reported lower levels of psychological resilience had more alcohol-related consequences when there were greater stressors.
How was this study conducted?
A total of 320 National Guard members from two southern states were included in this study (62.1% Georgia; 37.9% North Carolina), which asked soldiers to fill out information on stress, alcohol use, behaviors, and resilience. The majority of the sample was White, male, and had completed at least some college. The average participant age was 32.10 years (SD = 8.65) and most were E4-E6 ranks. Almost two-thirds of the sample was married or living as married and one-third had not previously deployed. Among those who had previously deployed, the average time since return from the most recent combat deployment was 5 years, with the most recent being 3 months. Multiple deployments among participants were also common, with 42.5% reporting more than one deployment and 29.1% reporting three or more deployments.
This study furthers our understanding of the alcohol-stress relationship by contextualizing it in terms of behaviors related to alcohol, as opposed to measuring only the alcohol consumed. Most importantly, our work extends prior research in its examination of resilience as a protective factor in relation to stress and serious alcohol-related consequences.
Why should we care?
First, it is important to understand that in this study, resilience operated as a protective factor only under conditions of stress. This means that at the lowest levels of stress, the behaviors exhibited by soldiers did not differ between those with high, medium, or low levels of psychological resilience; their resilience scores didn’t matter. At medium levels of stress, we began to see differences related to stress in relation to serious consequences related to alcohol use, but it was at the highest levels of stress that resilience mattered the most. At the highest levels of stress, the number of alcohol-related consequences was twice as many for the low resilience group as for the high resilience group. Put another way, as stress increased, those with average levels of psychological resilience saw increases in alcohol-related consequences; this increase was even more drastic for those with low levels of resilience. For the high resilience soldiers, however, this increase in stress did not confer the same risk; the change in alcohol-related consequences was not significant.
Taken together, these findings have practical significance to the military, as well as to civilian occupations that tend to have higher levels of stress exposure. Namely, the importance of psychological resilience is exacerbated as stress levels increase, and high levels of stress are related not only to increased alcohol consumption or risk of alcohol misuse but to behaviors and related consequences as well. We also understand psychological resilience as malleable; it is a psychological construct that can be targeted and enhanced through prevention training efforts.
These findings are described in the article titled Resilience as a moderating factor between stress and alcohol-related consequences in the Army National Guard, recently published in Addictive Behaviors. This work was conducted by Jessica Kelley Morgan, Janice M. Brown, and Robert M. Bray from RTI International.