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High Emotional Intelligence Helps Protect PTSD Sufferers From Drinking Problems

June 10, 2015 Alcoholism

People with PTSD have reduced chances of experiencing drinking problems when they have relatively well-developed emotional intelligence, according to recent findings from a group of American researchers.

People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are unusually likely to develop diagnosable symptoms of alcohol dependence and/or alcohol abuse. In a study published in December 2014 in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from two U.S. institutions explored the role that emotional intelligence plays in increasing or lowering any given PTSD-affected individual’s alcohol-related risk. These researchers concluded that a relatively high level of emotional intelligence substantially reduces the odds that a person with PTSD will develop a harmful tendency called negative urgency, which helps support potentially dangerous patterns of alcohol intake.

Emotional Intelligence

The term emotional intelligence (EI) refers to a capacity to recognize your emotional state and keep your emotions under control; it also refers to a capacity to recognize other people’s emotional states and make sense of their emotion-related behavior. The basic concept of this form of intelligence was developed in the early 1990s by a team of American psychologists. Compared to people with relatively low EI, people with relatively high EI have an enhanced ability to interpret emotional changes and adapt to emotion-laden circumstances while retaining a sense of mental/psychological balance and well-being. Over the years, various members of the media have equated well-developed emotional intelligence with such things as happiness, an optimistic outlook on life or a high degree of personal motivation. However, the originators of EI theory reject these claims, as well as the claim that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ (intelligence quotient), a common measurement of the basic ability to use higher-level mental skills.

Negative Urgency

Psychologists and psychiatrists use the term negative urgency to refer to an increased inclination to act in reckless or highly impulsive ways while under significant stress or experiencing other strong emotions. Generally speaking, people with three key personality traits have unusually high chances of displaying this damaging, stress-related behavior. These traits are a relatively low degree of agreeableness in social situations, a relatively low degree of conscientiousness and a relatively high degree of neuroticism (defined as involvement in anxious, jealous, fearful and/or worried states of mind).

PTSD and Alcohol Problems

Compared to people who consume alcohol in light or moderate amounts, people who drink heavily have increased chances of developing post-traumatic stress disorder after exposure to highly dangerous or life-threatening situations or events. Conversely, people already dealing with PTSD have heightened chances of developing alcohol problems serious enough to merit an official diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcohol dependence). Groups of PTSD-affected individuals with particularly high risks for alcohol-related problems include women, survivors of childhood sexual or physical abuse, survivors of sexual assaults or physical assaults in adulthood and people exposed to combat zones.

Emotional Intelligence, PTSD and Drinking

In the study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of South Dakota and the Sioux Falls VA Health Care System used information gathered from 90 veterans of military service in Afghanistan and Iraq to gauge the impact that emotional intelligence has on the alcohol-related risk of a person with PTSD. The researchers used information from the same group of veterans to gauge the impact of negative urgency on the chances that an individual with PTSD will develop alcohol problems. All of the participants submitted data on their PTSD symptoms, their level of negative urgency and their relative emotional intelligence through a series of eight questionnaires administered over 14 days.

The researchers concluded that, compared to study participants with relatively low emotional intelligence scores, the participants with high EI scores had a reduced tendency to experience negative urgency and act in risky or impulsive ways. They also concluded that the participants with well-developed emotional intelligence drank smaller amounts of alcohol and had a substantially lower level of exposure to alcohol-related risk. In addition, the researchers concluded that the study participants with well-developed emotional intelligence had a smaller number of PTSD symptoms than their counterparts with relatively poorly developed emotional intelligence.

Overall, the study’s authors found that emotional intelligence has an indirect effect on the odds that any given person with PTSD will develop negative urgency and consume alcohol in dangerous ways. This means that an affected individual’s level of emotional intelligence helps explain, but does not fully explain, the absence or presence of PTSD-related alcohol problems.

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