By Melissa Riddle Chalos
Let’s just be real. These days, college is as synonymous with drinking as it is with education. In fact, although alcohol consumption has changed very little in the past decade, it’s as much a part of campus life as going to classes and collegiate sports.
According to the 2016 Monitoring the Future Study:
- 81 percent of college students have tried alcohol at least once in their lifetime
- 67 percent of college students say they’ve been drunk
- 32 percent of college students report binge drinking (consuming five or more drinks in a row)1
Legally, 18-to-24-year-olds are full-blown adults in full control of each and every decision — and yet science says, Hold on a minute. That’s because your brain still has some maturing to do.
“The last place to be connected — to be fully myelinated — is the front of your brain,” says Dr. Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain. “And what’s in the front? Your prefrontal cortex and your frontal cortex. These are areas where we have insight, empathy, these executive functions such as impulse control, risk-taking behavior.”2
As independent as you are now, your internal decision-maker may not be fully developed until your late 20s. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality.
During these same years when your brain is most able to absorb information and learn more efficiently, it’s also especially susceptible to addiction. Not only are you more likely to get addicted faster, but the effects of substance abuse could also be more permanent than in biologically adult brains.2
That’s why it’s especially important to stop, think intentionally and empower yourself to make healthy decisions — not just for the next four years, but for the years that follow.
Kicking College Stress to the Curb
College life may seem like one big party, but underneath it’s slightly buzzed exterior is a full load of stressors. Here are just a few things that might be stressing you out:
- Leaving home for the first time
- Making new friends and rooming with people you may not know
- Juggling all the logistics of college life
- Meeting parental expectations
- Covering college tuition and other expenses3
The good news is, managing the stress and demands of college life is totally doable. You just have to be intentional about it. These simple tips can help you keep college stress in check.
The Setup for Success: Time Management
One of the biggest challenges you may face is time management — how to juggle your classes, social life and work without feeling completely overwhelmed. Give these ideas a try:
- Take 30 minutes each Sunday to plan for the week ahead. Without a plan, there’s no chance of keeping your head in the game. Use a weekly planner app, a whiteboard in your dorm room or a scattering of sticky notes on your car dashboard to keep your weekly to-dos straight. Be your own coach to motivate and reward yourself for each day of success.
- Make a daily task list. Prioritize and tackle the hard ones earlier in the day, and check tasks off as you complete them. You’ll feel accomplished and empowered to finish the day well.
- Schedule study time in manageable blocks throughout the week. Cramming for eight hours straight on a Sunday isn’t as productive (nor retentive) as one hour of focus three days in a row. Schedule breaks that allow you to decompress, such as a walk in nature or coffee with a friend.
Stay Grounded in Reality: Mindfulness
One major way to detox from stress is to practice mindfulness. What’s mindfulness? The website Mindful describes this therapeutic technique as “the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”4
In a nutshell, mindfulness is intentionally focusing on the present moment, calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Like other healthy life practices, mindfulness brings awareness and self-care into the everyday. It reduces stress and keeps you grounded, positive and purposeful. Best of all, anyone can do it!
Take It Outside: Exercise
The college years often involve too little sleep and exercise and too much junk food and caffeine. It should go without saying, but your physical health depends on quality sleep (eight or more hours, ideally), solid nutrition and regular exercise.
When it comes to exercise, getting outside is best. Walk the greenways and trails, hike the hills, do yoga on the quad, play Frisbee in the park or even practice deep breathing exercises in the grass near the library. The more time you spend in nature, the healthier — and less stressed — you’ll be.
Find Your Tribe
The friends you make in college are more likely to be the lifelong friendships you keep. So it’s important to step outside your comfort zone and find your tribe. You might find them in the common room of your dorm, eating lunch in the student center or by joining a club. Every campus has hundreds of student organizations and activities chock-full of people like you who are looking for connection.
Alone time is fine when you need a quiet break to recharge. Just don’t allow solitude to set in — not when you’re surrounded by other people who are looking for their tribe too.
Big, Buzz-Free Fun: Reinventing the College Party Concept
You can find a party on campus just about any night of the week, and alcohol is quite often the main attraction. But you don’t have to get drunk — or even drink at all — to let off steam and have a good time.
Take it from Noelle Divoe. She waited until she was 21 to drink and was “completely sober 95 percent of the time” she spent in college. But that didn’t break her stride. In fact, Divoe learned several things about herself, and college life, that she couldn’t have discovered inebriated. Not only was she more outgoing sober, she saved tons of money for spring break and found out that “playing ‘Flip Cup’ with a cupful of soda is as (if not more) effective than one with booze.”5
“Deciding not to drink in college doesn’t have to be a huge, life-changing decision,” Divoe writes in Seventeen. “So many people choose to drink when they’re really not into it just because they’re afraid of getting made fun of for being straight edge. In the end, nobody really cares if you drink or not as long as you’re down to have a good time. … Actually, most people usually thought it was pretty cool that I was able to wait until I was 21.”5
Safe Drinking: Boundaries Keep It Real
Still not convinced it’s possible to have fun in college without alcohol? Strike a happy medium by putting some parameters in place that will help you party safely — and avoid trouble — when you do.
You don’t have to be a downer to set limits for yourself. Boundaries are good. Here are five helpful ones to consider:
- Designate a gatekeeper. When going out with friends, it’s important for at least one person in every group of five to be completely sober. If everyone is buzzed or drunk, no one’s safety is guaranteed. The gatekeeper gets her non-alcoholic drinks paid for by the others, knows the signs of alcohol poisoning and makes sure everyone gets back home safely.
- Don’t drive. Period. Now that Uber and Lyft are cheap and at the ready, there’s no need for a designated driver.
- Always eat before you drink. If you drink on an empty stomach, you’ll get drunk faster. While that may sound like a win, you’ll also crash faster — unable to control your intoxication level or its aftereffects. That’s no fun for anyone. So load up on pizza at the party, or eat a healthy meal before drinking.
- Don’t party by comparison. What Bob can handle may not be what you can handle. Know how much alcohol is in your drink before you consume it, and stick to your limits.
- Slow your roll. It takes about 30 minutes to feel the real effects of alcohol. Don’t pile it on, or you’ll pay for it later in pain. Try alternating club soda or water between drinks. In fact, a full glass of water between alcoholic drinks and before you crash for the night can make a world of difference the next day.6
Parameters don’t make you a prude. They just don’t allow the college party to ruin your post-party life. You don’t even have to broadcast them. After all, they’re personal. But if you do wind up having to explain your choices, remember, the people who really matter will only show respect.
Reaching Out for Help
The college years should be seriously good fun. Challenging, yes. Stressful, sometimes. But overall, you should turn that tassel feeling great about your accomplishments, the relationships you’ve made and your first foray into adulthood.
If it doesn’t feel that way because you’re struggling with alcohol, there’s still plenty of time to change it. And you’re not alone: Approximately 20 percent of college students are in that boat with you. Unfortunately, only about five percent of college students seek help for a substance use disorder. 7
The good news? There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. You have people in your corner and tons of resources available to help you get healthy. Consider these options:
- Talk to your RA. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to a peer who understands the pressures you face. Your resident advisor knows all about campus life and can help direct you to the resources available to you.
- Make an appointment with your college counseling center. Did you know many colleges offer counseling services to students — sometimes even for free? If you feel isolated, depressed or overwhelmed by stress and anxiety, don’t try to work through it on your own. A counselor can help you navigate any challenges you may face.
- Take advantage of college recovery programs. Many colleges and universities now offer on-campus recovery programs. These may include sober housing options that enable you to live alongside other students in recovery and academic schedules that incorporate support group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous.8
- Seek treatment. Going to rehab won’t interrupt or wreck your life. More likely, it will help you get it back on track.
Talbott offers a Young Adult Program aimed at helping you get to the root of addiction so you can feel confident facing this season of life and beyond substance-free. We’re just a phone call away and can help you understand your treatment options. No judgment — only solutions for your sobriety and success. Call our toll-free helpline today.
1 “College Binge Drinking Stats.” Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, Accessed February 20, 2018.
2 “Why Teens are Impulsive, Addiction Prone and Should Protect Their Brains.” NPR, January 28, 2015.
3 “Managing Stress.” The University of Texas, Division of Student Affairs, Accessed March 4, 2018.
4 “What Is Mindfulness?” Mindful, October 8, 2014.
5 Divoe, Noell. “Here’s What Happened When I Decided Not to Drink in College.” Seventeen, May 26, 2015.
6 Bush, Julie. “How to Drink in College Without Ruining Your Life.” HuffPost, August 18, 2015.
7 Blanco, Carlos, MD, et al. “Mental Health of College Students and Their Non-college-attending Peers: Results from the National Epidemiologic Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions.” Archives of General Psychiatry, December 2008.
8 Moore, Abigail Sullivan. “A Bridge to Recovery on Campus.” The New York Times, January 20, 2012.