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How do you get through college with drugs and alcohol? It’s a heavy question for some of us. Sure, lots of people abstain from drinking and drugging with no difficulty at all. Others are able to have a few beers on a Saturday night, play some pool and do some flirting, but not lose our heads. Then there’s the rest of us. The people who drink and get high in college and actually experience some consequences as a result and may even need professional help to recover. This article should be useful to any college student looking for healthy ways to manage stress and anxiety, but it will pay particular attention to the pitfalls addiction presents.

A Realistic View of College Life, Drinking and Drugs

For most people entering college, it will be the first time in their lives that they are able to enjoy (some of) the independence and freedom of adulthood. But with independence comes responsibility. College is a time when a great deal of growth and transformation happens. Intellectual growth, social growth, for some physical growth. Lots of incoming freshman and sophomores will be exposed to new ideas and experiences for the first time. It’s not realistic to expect every college student to stay in the campus library with their face in a book for 4 years. College parties and weekend trips are generally an important part of socialization there.

1.) Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are also a part of college life for nearly everyone. All of that freedom, living away from home for the first time. Managing the load of coursework without the structure of the home environment and a parent looking over your shoulder. The pressure to fit in and find a social niche or clique can make many people anxious too. So, the realistic view accepts these three realities: 

2.) College is a BIG life change

College represents major change in a formative period of life. It’s inherently stressful and can be anxiety producing. Expect that. Accept it and adapt accordingly.

3.) Most College Students Drink Alcohol

Most college students drink and many experiment with drugs. It’s certainly not a requirement, but it’s nearly impossible to avoid any and all exposure to these things while still having a social life. Accept this reality, but also acknowledge the very real danger of addiction and misuse.

Having healthy tools for managing stress and anxiety is a very practical thing for any college student to do. You don’t have to wait until stress or drinking and drugs (or all three) overwhelm you. You can raise your own awareness and put some habits and boundaries in place early on.

Where do Stress and Anxiety in College Come From?

Before we tackle ways for college students to manage anxiety and stress without drugs or alcohol, let’s consider the sources of this stress and what can be done there. The best way to manage stress is usually to reduce how much of it you have in the first place. So, what are the major sources of stress for college students? What makes them worry and ties their stomachs in knots? Here are the main categories of stress many college students face:

Academic Stress

College work is more challenging than what most people do in high school. You’re expected to do more of your own critical thinking and analysis. Your time management skills are put to the test. So is your discipline. College isn’t cheap for most of us, there is pressure to succeed and pressure to set yourself up for a future career. It’s a lot to bear.

Social Stress

College life can make you suddenly feel like a small fish in a big pond. Even if you’re in a relatively small college, chances are the population is still significantly larger than your high school. There’s pressure to “fit in” and find a niche. Peer pressure also falls under this category and can be a factor where alcohol and drug use in college are concerned too.

Physical Stress

College students often push the envelope when it comes to getting adequate, restful sleep. They may neglect nutrition out of convenience or just exercising newfound freedom. When alcohol and drugs enter the picture, they can only add to the stress on the body.

The Stress of Change

Change is an inevitable part of life, but it can be a source of stress, especially when a number of big changes happen all at once. Going off to college means a whole new living arrangement, living away from family for the first time for most, a whole new peer group. The expectations people have of you change and are likely much more than you’re used to.

Addiction and College Students with Learning Disabilities

Being aware of your individual sources of stress is an important part in learning how to manage them appropriately. Most college students will be able to identify with all of the above. But do any particular ones stand out for you? If you have a learning disorder like ADHD or dyslexia, the academic pressures of college can be especially challenging and anxiety-producing. Young people with learning disabilities have also demonstrated a higher likelihood of falling into substance abuse. This fact is important for parents and students with learning disabilities in college to be aware of.

How can LD College Students Avoid Addiction?

The impulse control and other challenges of learning disabilities combined with academic stress can make substance abuse in college students a concern, even among students with no prior history of addiction. When you introduce all of the above into a new environment where drug and alcohol use are prevalent, it can be a recipe for disaster. This does not mean students with learning disabilities shouldn’t go to college of course. But it is a serious enough concern that it should be addressed before any problems arise if possible. Awareness and putting checks and balances in place to both support the student with a learning disability and keep a careful eye on drinking and substance use are a wise move here.  Organizations like the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), Eye to Eye and the Attention Deficit Disorder Association offer guidance and support.

Managing College Stress without Drugs or Alcohol

Hopefully you’ve taken some time to consider which particular stressors could be the most problematic for you or your loved one. That step will go a long way towards making your efforts to counteract stress more effective. Total abstinence from drugs and alcohol is one option, though not the only option here. For some college students, it’s not a problem. For others, it will be a big ask. The important thing is that drugs and alcohol do not become a problem.  Turning to substances for stress relief or to escape uncomfortable feelings is one way to invite trouble into your life. It not only greatly increased the likelihood of becoming psychologically and/or physically dependent upon drugs or alcohol. It also robs you of the valuable experience and learning that comes from confronting stress or challenges head-on with a clear mind.

To reduce the chances of stress or anxiety leading to drinking or drug problems for a college student, there are two main vectors of attack.

  1. Reducing sources of stress pre-emptively by making plans in advance and following through.
  2. Introducing healthy outlets to reduce stress and anxiety before they become overwhelming.

5 Ways College Students Can Reduce Stress

Some of these suggestions may seem kind of obvious or like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many students enter college woefully unprepared for the changes and challenges and the stress that can accompany them. Pre-emptive action and planning for what lies ahead is the easiest and most practical way to prevent stress from leading to drug and alcohol abuse or any other problems in the first place. It’s much easier (not to mention less painful) to reduce these risks ahead of time than it is to clean up the aftermath if things go sideways.

1.) Get Ahead of Yourself

This one is simple, if not always easy. Giving yourself extra time to get to class early, starting to write a paper before you think you need to begin. It might sound silly but getting places on time or early and avoiding the need to crunch before an exam or cram a paper is probably the simplest and most obvious way for a college student to avoid stress.

2.) Put Your Health First

Admittedly, this one requires discipline, which isn’t always easy for college students to come by but make getting enough sleep and eating properly a priority. Everything is at least a little easier to handle when you’re well rested and you feel good. Regular strenuous physical exercise also happens to be one of the best ways to relieve stress and anxiety.

3.) Stay Organized & Keep It Simple.

Something as simple as organizing your socks and underwear and clean clothes so it’s easy to get dressed in the morning helps reduce stress. Sure, that doesn’t sound like a huge source of it, but stress is cumulative. It’s not the final straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s the pile of straw that’s been building up throughout the day or the week. So, stay organized and try not to make your life or your belongings any more complicated than they need to be. Stay simple. Stay organized. You will be amazed how much this can reduce your overall stress level. Try it!

4.) Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries is something most people struggle with at least a little, but it is an excellent way to pre-emptively manage stress and live a happier more satisfying life. There are some great books on setting boundaries if you want to learn more about it, it’s worth reading one or two. But put simply, it means learning how to say “no” to people. It also means knowing your own limits and drawing lines that you will not cross in order to protect your mental health.  

5.) Service Your Mental Health and Spiritual Life

You don’t need wait until you think you have a problem to benefit from counseling or therapy. Incorporating wellness activities, like yoga or tai chi and mindfulness practices like mantra meditation is also a proven way to reduce stress. Investing in your spirituality has similar benefits. Keep in mind that you do not have to be religious to benefit from spirituality. You just need to have an open mind.

If Drugs or Alcohol Do Become a Problem in College

Many people go to college and experiment in different ways. Sometimes the ways in which we test our limits aren’t the healthiest, unfortunately. Stress and anxiety can and do lead to addiction and dependency when a drug or a drink becomes the go-to solution for every problem. It happens before you even realize it. It doesn’t matter if “you’ve always been able to handle your liquor” or even if you managed to moderate your recreational soft drug use in high school.

College is a completely different set of variables and the stakes are even higher. Do yourself a favor. If you think you might be in trouble with drugs or alcohol – tell someone. Don’t wait until circumstances or even tragedy force you into the open. There is more help available for addiction than ever before. Our society is more compassionate and understanding about it than ever before. Addiction is not a sign that you are weak or a bad person. It’s a sign that you’re human. It happens. The key is to remember the rule of holes. When you recognize you’re in one. Stop digging (and ask for a hand getting out).

If you’re concerned that a loved one in college may have a problem with drugs or alcohol don’t let denial or discomfort prevent you from acting. Talk to them in a kind and compassionate way. Try to keep the emotional temperature down. Let them know you aren’t there to judge them; you just want to help. You are welcome to contact us at Midwood Addiction Treatment at (704) 741-0771 if you need help or you’re just looking for advice on how to approach a loved one about addiction. We are here to help from start to finish and we understand addiction and recovery better than most.