A recent study finds that even small, day-to-day stressors can cause an increase in illegal drug use among people on probation or parole who have a history of substance use. The study could inform future treatment efforts and was conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of Texas, the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco and Policy Studies, the Truth Initiative, Gateway Foundation Corrections and Texas Christian University.
“Our findings suggest that drug and alcohol treatment are valuable tools for those on parole or probation, and that even if people relapse, the treatment helps them limit their substance use over time,” says Sarah Desmarais, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-lead author of a paper describing the work.
“The work also tells us that substance abuse prevention programs may be more effective if they take into account the treatment history of program participants,” says Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-lead author of a paper describing the work.
“Typically, we focus on the stress of traumatic events, such as the death of a loved one, and its effect on people returning to substance use,” Desmarais says. “For this study, we wanted to know how small, daily stressors – like arguments – might affect alcohol or illegal drug use.”
“This work may help us inform treatment and help people avoid substance-use problems that could lead them back to prison,” Neupert says.
For the study, researchers looked at data on 117 men who were on probation or parole and were enrolled in a community-based substance abuse treatment program. All of the study participants completed a baseline psychosocial evaluation that addressed their criminal history, their history of substance use and their treatment history. Participants then completed a confidential, daily survey about their day-to-day stressors, cravings for alcohol and illegal drugs, and use of alcohol and illegal drugs for 14 consecutive days.
“We found that the more stress people had on any given day, the more likely they were to crave and use illegal drugs that day,” Neupert says. “And this effect was especially pronounced in study participants who had little or no previous history with drug-treatment programs.”
The researchers found no connection between daily stress and alcohol use. However, they did find that stressful days affected cravings for alcohol on the following day – but in two different ways. Participants with a lengthy history of treatment actually experienced less intense alcohol cravings the day after stress, whereas participants with little history of treatment saw an increase in cravings.
“Taken together, these findings indicate that treatment may have a strong, residual effect that buffers the impact of stress on substance cravings and abuse,” Desmarais says.
The researchers also looked at whether illegal drug use predicted stress the following day, and it did – particularly for those with an extensive history of drug treatment.
“We think this particular finding indicates that these study participants have a more severe problem with drug abuse, and possibly that they are especially aware of the consequences of their drug use,” Neupert says.
The paper, “Daily Stressors as Antecedents, Correlates, and Consequences of Alcohol and Drug Use and Cravings in Community-Based Offenders,” is published in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. The paper was co-authored by Julie S. Gray of the University of Texas at Arlington; Amy M. Cohn of the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco and Policy Studies and the Truth Initiative; Stephen Doherty of Gateway Foundation Corrections; and Kevin Knight of Texas Christian University. The work was funded by a grant to Texas Christian University from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, under National Institutes of Health grant DA016190, with support from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (all part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), and from the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice.