6 Warning Signs that College Drinking Has Gotten Out of Control

Drinking has become more or less accepted as part of college culture. Many students are away from home for the first time in their lives and they want to take full advantage of their new freedom. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that about 60 percent of full-time college students drank alcohol in the past month and 39 percent reported binge drinking, which is defined as four drinks on one occasion for women and five drinks for men. Thirteen percent reporting binge drinking at least five times in the past 30 days. 

Many people think that college students are too young to develop a substance use disorder, but in fact substance use first becomes a problem most frequently between the ages of 18 and 25. College is often a time when young adults have to adapt to major life changes while facing a greater exposure to drugs and alcohol. To compound this, the brain hasn’t yet reached physical maturity, which typically happens around age 25. Therefore, college students may be at risk for developing a substance use disorder. Here’s how to tell if college drinking has become a problem.

Your grades start to slip

Binge drinking is possibly the worst thing you can do for your grades. A large survey of more than 28,000 students conducted by the Center for the Study of Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University found a strong inverse correlation between drinking and GPA. Students who did not binge-drink in the past two weeks had an average GPA of 3.19 while students who reported binge drinking once in the past two weeks had an average GPA of 3.11. That’s not a huge difference, but the more you drink, the worse your GPA gets. Students who binge-drank three to five times in the past two weeks had an average GPA of 3.04, while students who binge-drank 10 or more times had an average GPA of 2.95.

It’s worth noting that correlation doesn’t equal causation. There may be other factors that led to poor grades and drinking. However, there are many reasons to suspect drinking has a major impact on your grades. An obvious one is that it cuts down on study time. Another is that it disturbs your sleep. Sleep is when new information is consolidated in long-term memory, so if you’re not sleeping deeply most nights, you’re not learning efficiently. Lack of quality sleep also impairs concentration and makes it harder to pay attention in class and study. If you feel like you’re working hard and your grades keep falling anyway, take a look at your drinking habits.

You’re skipping more classes

Yet another way drinking harms your grades is making you miss class. In college, no one forces you to go to class and in many classes, no one will even notice if you don’t show up. Therefore, it’s tempting to stay in bed if you’re feeling hungover. As a result, you miss explanations of concepts and you may miss out on valuable information like what’s on the test. 

However, there’s another reason skipping class is cause for concern. Class is what you’re there for and what you–and likely your parents–are paying for. If you’re missing class because you’re hungover, or because you want to start the weekend early or you just want to stay home and drink, then alcohol has clearly taken priority over more important things. This is also true if you’re missing activities like clubs or sports, or you’re supposed to work on group projects but you blow them off to drink instead.

You drink to relieve stress

College is a stressful time for many students. There’s a lot to do and the stakes are high. How you perform in class may determine your eligibility for scholarships, participation in sports, chances of getting an internship, and ultimately your chances of getting a good job after you graduate. Many students feel overwhelmed by coursework, especially in their first year. It’s very hard to find time to relax. If your idea of relaxing is to start drinking right after class on Friday, you’re probably using alcohol as an unhealthy coping mechanism. If you get in the habit of doing that, you may even need alcohol to relax. Eventually, you will build a tolerance and your levels of the neurotransmitter GABA will be too low and your glutamate levels will be too high and without alcohol in your system, you will feel tense and irritable. 

You think about drinking while in class

Preoccupation with drinking is a huge warning sign of alcohol use disorder. It’s normal to be bored in class sometimes and look forward to the weekend, but that typically means looking forward to seeing friends and doing fun things. If you’re specifically thinking about your next opportunity to drink, it’s a clear sign that alcohol is becoming a problem.

You’re developing a tolerance

As noted above, if you drink frequently enough, your body adapts to the presence of alcohol and you build a tolerance. You know you’ve started building a tolerance when you have to drink more to get the same effect. You also know you’ve built a tolerance when you feel like you have to drink to get back to normal. You may feel agitated or irritable or your hands may shake or you may have a headache. When you get to this stage, quitting becomes more challenging and you may need medical help to detox safely.

You face disciplinary trouble

Another red flag for alcohol use disorder is when you get in trouble with the college or with the law. Every year, 696,000 college students are assaulted by other students who have been drinking and 97,000 of those are sexual assaults. And one study found that as many as 20 percent of college students admitted to driving while drunk. This is clearly dangerous, as more than 1,800 college students die every year from alcohol-related accidents. It can also get you thrown in jail or thrown out of school. If you face disciplinary action from drinking or from something you did while drinking, it’s probably not a fluke. Take it as a serious warning to stop drinking.

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