“I don’t drink every day so I’m not an alcoholic.”
When most people picture someone with a drinking problem, they probably imagine someone who drinks every day and can’t function without alcohol. But even those who aren’t dependent on alcohol yet routinely drink to excess, i.e., binge drinkers, are in danger of experiencing long-term consequences.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is very clear about the high costs of college drinking: Alcohol poisoning, assault, unsafe sex, sexual abuse, injury, academic problems and death are some of the agonizing consequences of binge drinking.
So what is considered binge drinking?
Many people may feel that having a drink to take the edge off is a good way to start socializing. And though it’s true alcohol decreases inhibitions, those who drink to excess often find themselves consuming more drinks than they had intended. For women, that means consuming four or more drinks over the course of a couple of hours and for men it’s five drinks. (Keep in mind that this number may be lower depending on a person’s body mass and that blood-alcohol levels continue to increase after the last drink is consumed, which increases the chances of alcohol poisoning.)
Important factors in the development of binge drinking include:
- Learned patterns regarding drinking
- Genetic factors
- Attachment to family or significant caregivers
- Core beliefs about oneself and
- The age at which someone starts drinking
So how do these factors play into the college experience?
College is an exciting and eye-opening time filled with new challenges, relationships and environments. It is a time of testing independence and discovery. For most, this is exactly what they have been anticipating.
In times of exponential change like this, many of the underlying beliefs that people hold about drinking and how it relates to them socially can be intensified. Brain development continues to mature well into the 20s, which means the brain can be prone to increased risk taking; so learning stress-management skills during the college years is vital.
Drinking to fit in
Four out of five college students drink alcohol and half of them binge drink. “Drinking to fit in” is one of the top reasons for drinking in college. Young adults being treated for alcohol-related issues endorse social anxiety, social fears (like not fitting in) and difficulty creating new relationships as reasons for their drinking.
For those who drink, it seems that alcohol becomes a social equalizer of sorts. If those entering college have the perception that drinking helps them fit in and those who are already in college uphold similar beliefs, then it can be difficult to challenge this association.
This perception, coupled with increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, puts young adults at a greater risk for developing excessive drinking habits like binge drinking. Those who are likely to turn to alcohol due to stress are likely to develop excessive drinking habits that can lead to dependency on the substance. Dependency on alcohol ultimately leads to drinking alone, which is the paradox of “drinking to fit in.”
Young adults who are able to evaluate their actions and motives for coping are better able to channel stress into manageable outlets. This usually stems from the ability to recognize and utilize significant people in their life who are reliable, which creates increased feelings of safety and decreased loneliness.
Such young adults tend to feel safer in exploring their new environment without turning to alcohol. Finding sober activities, creating a structured homework environment, touching base with important social support and utilizing and evaluating coping skills are all ways to decrease binge drinking behavior.
The bottom of the glass
In the end, severe consequences are not just a result of daily drinking: Those who engage in less frequent drinking but who drink greater amounts are also in danger. If you or someone you know is binge drinking, discuss the risks. Explore how they might seek help or handle stress without turning to alcohol.
If you or someone you know is unable to limit their drinking, dependency on alcohol may be developing. Remember that after your last drink, your blood-alcohol level continues to rise and symptoms of alcohol poisoning may develop. Most people feel responsible for alcohol-related tragedies when they may have missed the signs and did not seek help.
Whether you plan on drinking at college or not, please learn more about the risks associated with drinking and have emergency numbers ready to call. It may not be the popular thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.
- College Drinking: Changing the Culture
- Adult Attachment Security and College Student Substance Use
- The Truth about College Binge Drinking