Ever come home from work and plain needed a good stiff drink? It seems a fairly common sentiment, but according to new research, the notion that alcohol can curb stress may be an axiom. Of course, alcohol itself might not be the notorious intoxicant that we think it is. It could all be a ruse created by advertising gone awry.

Stress is a powerful foe. It makes the body release catecholamine hormones, epinephrine and norepinephrine, and glucocorticoid hormones, cortisol and cortisone— I don’t know what they all mean, but they sound nasty. “Stress” is generally just a catch-all for such things as anxiety, antagonism, tiredness, frustration, distress, overwork, premenstrual tension, over-focusing, confusion, or mourning, and perhaps a strong drink could help with some of these stressors, but not likely. Where one would hope that a shot would help relieve over-focusing, for example, odds are that it will not. Instead of alcohol taking the edge off of stress, it turns out that stress will instead diminish the effects of alcohol.

But the effects of alcohol aren’t as profound as you think they are anyhow …

A great deal of alcohol’s effect is actually the placebo effect. Victoria University in New Zealand convinced nearly 150 students that they were drinking vodka and tonic with limes, and watched the students partake and shows signs on intoxication, however, they would be hard-pressed to actually get inebriated on what they were really drinking: tonic with limes—no vodka.

The ambiance was set with a bar and barkeepers, and allowed to imbibe for a while before being shown a set of slides depicting a crime scene. Despite being stone-sober, those who thought they’d been drinking recalled details with less accuracy than those who knew they were sober.

But it makes sense. Alcohol is the nexus of so much human behavior; often times it is a requirement of fun. There can be no doubt that drinking can have detrimental effects, however, it seems that much of the time it’s just an excuse for people to behave in ways that society says they cannot unless they are impaired. It’s the placebo effect at work.

So next time she tells you that she only kissed that girl because she was drunk, wonder if she was impaired because she was drinking, or drinking because she wanted to be impaired.

Written by Jason Bellows, posted on 28 February 2006. Jason is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.
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