The fine line between college drinking and alcoholism

Because of alcohol’s nature as a depressant, people often turn to it to help relieve stress. Photo by Caitie Guttry

Because of alcohol’s nature as a depressant, people often turn to it to help relieve stress. Photo by Caitie Guttry

One of the names in this story has been changed to protect the individual’s identity.

It is Thursday night and Nicole, a junior English major, is spending time with her friends, but she can’t get the stress of upcoming finals out of her mind.

She decides to turn to alcohol to distract her from this stress.

“It just helps me focus on having fun with my friends,” Nicole said. “It’s like I put my energy into something else, like parties and going out, instead of focusing on what’s stressing me out and the things that are going to my head. When you drink, sometimes your brain slows down a little bit and one of my problems is that I am always thinking about stuff, so when I do (drink), it will help me put things aside.”

Drinking alcohol to reduce stress is not uncommon.

“Not only students, but as a population, people turn to alcohol to numb some of the pain and some of the stressful events in their life, which can then turn into more severe things like people that turn to drugs, etc.,” said director of student health Jacqueline Deats.

Steven Schandler, a psychology professor that studies the etiology and epidemiology of alcohol and substance abuse, explained that there are many models for the development of alcohol problems.

“One of them is the reinforcement model that when people use alcohol, it makes them feel better. It legitimately makes them feel better, so they self-medicate. If something makes you feel better, then you continue to take that so it can continue to make you feel better,” Schandler said.

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so it reduces brain activity and helps students relax. Students take five to six courses and especially with final exams around the corner, their stress level gets higher, he said.

“Alcohol is a thing that can relieve a person’s stress, because it reduces their brain activity, it relaxes them, so I shouldn’t be surprised if an individual in college would be more disposed to look for ways to control their stress and alcohol is one of those ways,” Schandler said.

This becomes a habit. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorders. They also found that one in four students experience academic consequences, including missing class, falling behind, doing worse on papers and exams and receiving lower grades as a result of drinking.

Drinking alcohol affects a student’s ability to complete school work in a few ways. Virginia Carson, a biology professor that studies neurochemical changes caused by alcohol, said that alcohol affects the frontal cortex which affects inhibitions, then the cerebellum which affects motor movements and, finally, the brainstem which affects consciousness and breathing.

“If you are under the influence of alcohol, you can’t think straight, so if you are trying to study for a test, that would be a very bad thing because you wouldn’t remember it,” Carson said.

Alcohol also affects the body in the long run because of its chemical makeup. Unlike other foods which gets absorbed in the intestines, alcohol is absorbed from the stomach, making it enter a person’s bloodstream earlier. Because alcohol is a tiny molecule, it can get into any organ once it is in a person’s bloodstream, and if it is present in a person’s body often, it can cause organs to deteriorate, Carson said.

“If you self-medicate with alcohol, you can have trouble sleeping, nervousness, you can increase stress, you can have blackouts, which can compromise your judgement ability,” Deats said.

Nicole said that though drinking to relieve stress is not a common occurrence for her, it does help her keep distracted from her stressors.

“I’m not thinking about homework, I’m not thinking about boy drama, I’m just hanging out with my friends and focusing on going to bars and goofing around,” Nicole said.

Carson also noted that college students drinking is to be sociable.

“Some people think that they need to (drink) to fit in but some people just enjoy it,” said Maren McGuinness, a sophomore integrated educational studies major. “I definitely hear people say ‘oh, I can’t wait to get drunk because it was a stressful week’ or ‘I’m upset about this, so I’m going to drink.’”

The stressful lifestyle in college leads students to drink, Schandler said. Alcohol consumption in college is usually different from consumption after graduating. The main indicator for drinking after graduating is how much a person drank prior to college, he said.

“That’s why when a person leaves college, their drinking during college rarely carries over. Once they leave college, they won’t have all the stress they had,” Schandler said.

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