Trait impulsivity impedes maturing out of problem drinking among socially anxious undergraduates

Aims: Alcohol use follows a developmental trajectory—steadily increasing and peaking in the early stages of emerging adulthood (e.g. first year of university) and declining thereafter. While most
individuals ‘mature out’ of problem drinking as they move through emerging adulthood, some continue to drink heavily and experience serious problems. Tension reduction theory identifies
social anxiety (SA) as a potential risk factor for problem drinking during emerging adulthood. However, mixed data suggest that the associations between SA and drinking behaviours are
not straightforward. Cross-sectional studies demonstrate that socially anxious emerging adults are at risk for problem drinking, but only if they are also high in trait impulsivity. This study
aimed to expand on previous work by examining trait impulsivity as moderator of the prospective associations between SA and maturing out of problem drinking in emerging adulthood.
Methods: Undergraduates (N = 302) completed online self-reports at regular intervals (6-months) over an 18-month period, resulting in four waves of data. Results: Unconditional latent growth curve models indicated that alcohol problems (but not use) declined linearly over time. Next, conditional growth curve models revealed that SA was associated with impeded maturing out of alcohol problems, but this effect was only present in socially anxious participants with high levels of trait impulsivity. Conclusion: Our study advances growing literature on the crucial moderating role that impulsivity plays in the SA pathway to problem drinking. Clinical interventions for problem drinking among socially anxious students should both assess for and target concurrent impulsivity.