I’m Shmacked: Alcohol Abuse in College

By Jack Bekos.

It’s a Saturday morning. You’ve woken up with a dizzying headache, an aversion to light and sound, and a crippling desire to remain in bed and sleep the pain away. “Are you ok” and “What happened last night” are blowing up your phone, which of course is close to dead. You haven’t changed your clothes from last night. Your dry mouth is begging for water, your body is begging for Advil, your mind is attempting desperately to remember….

Now change Saturday to Thursday. Or Friday. Or Sunday. Does the rest still apply? If so, what is your drinking an excuse for, if anything? Why is alcohol such an essential part of the college social experience? Did you have fun last night if you can’t even remember it? How frequently is alcohol abuse masked as “just having good ole college fun”? 

Let’s have a conversation about binge drinking. No, not the conversation between you and your parents, or via the automated lessons from AlcoholEdu. Let’s talk more about the physical and mental health effects of alcohol consumption that often go unnoticed until our college experience is over. 

Alcohol alters brain chemistry.

The fact that alcohol is a depressant means that it disrupts the balance of the chemical processes in the brain. The relaxed feeling that comes with having a few drinks is the result of the depressive nature of the drug, especially in the part of the brain we associate with inhibition. (Mistakes when drunk anyone?) However, increased alcohol use leaves a more permanent impact on the brain. Instead of pleasurable effects increasing, it is possible that negative emotional effects will take over. If you have ever met someone who gets angry, aggressive, anxious or depressed while drinking, excessive consumption is likely the culprit.

Alcohol increases anxiety and stress.

Before someone encourages you to get “blacked” tonight, think of how drinking alters your view of your environment. Heavy drinking interferes with the way we think. If we are prone to anxiety and notice something that could be threatening, we’ll hone in on that single thing and ignore the less threatening or neutral information. For example, we might notice a crush talking to someone we’re jealous of instead of focusing on everyone else they’ve interacted with throughout the night.

Alcohol depression is a vicious cycle.

If you drink heavily and regularly you are more likely to develop symptoms of depression. Repeated alcohol abuse can lead to reduced serotonin levels in the brain- the neurotransmitter that controls mood, cognition, reward, learning and memory. In Britain, people who experience anxiety or depression are more than twice as likely to be heavy or problem drinkers. Drinking heavily can also affect relationships with partners, family members and friends. Ask yourself: do I get poor sleep after I drink? Do I feel tired because of a hangover? Do I have a persistent bad mood? Am I anxious in situations where I would normally be comfortable? If the answer is yes, this could be a sign that persistent alcohol use is affecting your mood.

Alcohol is linked to suicide and self-harm.

Alcohol can make people lose their inhibitions and behave impulsively, so it can lead to actions they might not otherwise have taken – including self-harm and suicide. According to a survey of Scottish hospitals, more than half of people who ended up in a hospital because they’d deliberately injured themselves said they’ve drunk alcohol immediately before or while doing it. 

I know these effects are heavy and at times difficult to read. Yet it is not my goal to be overly didactic in affect. Rather, from a personal lens, the concern that comes from my school culture’s reliance on alcohol has opened my eyes. My friend’s accounts of their fears and negative emotions that come from binge drinking make me aware of the fact that this issue is profoundly widespread. I encourage everyone to ask themselves these questions: Do you hate yourself when you drink? Do you really have fun when you drink? Who feels more and more irresponsible after every time they drink? 

The answers do not have to be black and white, but instead a point of reference. The tipping point for alcohol abuse is often blurred, and it is incredibly important to remember the warning signs of such a point before it’s too late. In the end, your body (and mind) will thank you.