The Relationship Between Self-Regulation and Alcohol Use

Article Updated 4/13/2022

Self-empowering addiction treatment utilizes cognitive-behavioral therapy and teaching mindfulness to help people cope with their cravings, be more aware of their thoughts, and increase self-regulation in alcohol recovery. But just how important is self-regulation in recovery from alcohol use? To better understand it in recovery, it helps to understand it in the context of addiction. Read on to learn more about the relationship between self-regulation and alcohol use.

According to Hustad et. al., self-regulation refers to “the effortful ability to plan and achieve adaptive outcomes through goal-directed behavior, often by delaying gratification” (2009). It is important for individuals to develop self-regulation ability in alcohol recovery. Since lower levels of self-regulation have been associated with higher rates of alcohol-related consequences, the aforementioned team of researchers at Syracuse University and Brown University set out to test predictions about the relationships between self-regulation, alcohol consumption, and alcohol-related consequences among a group of heavy-drinking college students.

Relationship Between Self-Regulation and Alcohol Use: The Study

In regard to alcohol disorders, self-regulation theory suggests that individuals with lower levels of self-regulation will be more likely to become heavy drinkers who experience consequences of drinking and fail to change unhealthy drinking patterns. Previous studies have found that self-regulation is related to alcohol-related consequences but not alcohol consumption. In the current, longitudinal study, the researchers examined self-regulation, alcohol consumption, and alcohol-related consequences over a period of 12 months.

Participants in the study were 170 heavy drinking college students. Participants provided data on alcohol use as well as alcohol-related consequences at baseline and at 1-, 6-, and 12-month follow-up points. Self-regulation was measured using the 31-item short self-regulation questionnaire, based on the 63-item self-regulation questionnaire.

Results showed that, using a simultaneous latent growth model, self-regulation ability of participants predicted their initial alcohol-related consequences, rate of change for alcohol-related consequences, and rate of change for drink per week. However, self-regulation did not predict initial level of alcohol consumption. The results of this study suggest that a low level of self-regulation acts as a risk factor for alcohol-related consequences. Further, among heavy drinking college students, a low level of self-regulation (SR) appears to slow the rate of natural reduction in alcohol use over time.

“The results indicate that SR ability is related to the initial level of alcohol-related consequences and changes in consequences and alcohol consumption over the following year,” the authors report. “On average, college students in our sample decreased their weekly alcohol use, as well as the reported number of alcohol-related consequences over the course of the 12-month study. Although these results are consistent with previous longitudinal studies on college student drinking that observed decreased trajectories of alcohol use and associated harms over longer periods in the absence of any intervention, the current findings suggest SR protects against the development of alcohol-related consequences among young adult drinkers, as would be predicted by SR theory.”

Since self-regulation offers protection against alcohol-related consequences, it is important to increase self-regulation for individuals in alcohol recovery and alcohol treatment programs. How does one increase self-regulation? Mindfulness – paying attention to one’s own thoughts – is the path to self-regulation. Before an individual can begin to correct a problem (such as unhealthy drinking), he must be able to recognize the source of the problem (unhealthy thinking). Tools such as cognitive-behavioral therapy aim to increase mindfulness and can be helpful in treating alcohol use.

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Hustad JTP, Carey KB, Carey MP, Maisto SA. Self-regulation, alcohol consumption, and consequences in college student heavy drinkers: a simultaneous latent growth analysis. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2009; 70(3): 373-382.