Increasing emotion regulation skills for the reduction of heavy drinking
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Heavy drinking puts college students at risk for academic failure, alcohol use disorders, and even death. Although several interventions have proven moderately successful, overall rates of collegiate heavy drinking and consequences have significantly increased since 1998, as interventions may not adequately address underlying reasons for drinking. Research has consistently shown that college students who drink primarily to regulate emotions (i.e., internal drinking motives) are heavier drinkers, experience more consequences, and are likely to continue drinking heavily after college. Further, internal drinking motives are indicative of emotion dysregulation and associated personality traits. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is empirically supported and includes a group-based component designed to teach concrete behavioral emotion regulation, mindfulness, and distress tolerance skills. DBT skills training alone has been shown to reduce substance abuse and binge eating and is a promising, but untested, strategy for reducing collegiate alcohol abuse. The aims of the current study were threefold: (a) examine the efficacy of a DBT-based emotion regulation skills training (ERST) as an intervention for college student drinking, (b) examine theoretically-informed mechanisms of change (i.e., changes in mindfulness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance), and (c) examine intervention moderators (i.e., gender, readiness to change, and internal drinking motives). After completing pre-test measures, college students reporting two or more heavy drinking episodes during the past month were randomly assigned to an ERST or assessment-only control (AO) condition. ERST participants completed a single 3-hour group session of ERST within 7 days of completing pre-intervention measures and all participants completed two additional assessments. The current study found that ERST participants showed significantly greater reductions in heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences relative to AO control participants. Contrary to hypotheses, intervention participation did not increase hypothesized mechanisms of change (i.e., mindfulness, emotion regulation, or distress tolerance) although emotion regulation and distress tolerance moderated intervention efficacy. Finally, ERST participation appeared to serve as a protective factor against heavy drinking and consequences for internally motivated drinkers. Overall findings provide preliminary support for the feasibility of ERST as a new intervention for reducing problematic drinking by college students and suggest future directions for mechanisms of change and moderation hypotheses.