Campus Confidential: Coping with College

Preparing for Life’s Inevitable Challenges

Exploring Addictions

Reducing college student binge drinking

     The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that 4 out of 5 college students drink alcohol, and about half of those who drink, consume alcohol through binge drinking.  The problem with college drinking is not necessarily the drinking itself, but the negative consequences that result from binge drinking.  The consequences of binge drinking include:

  • Death: 1,825 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.
  • Assault: More than 690,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
  • Sexual Abuse: More than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.
  • Injury: 599,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 receive unintentional injuries while under the influence of alcohol.
  • Academic Problems: About 25 percent of college students report academic consequences of their drinking including missing class, falling behind, doing poorly on exams or papers, and receiving lower grades overall.
  • Health Problems/Suicide Attempts: More than 150,000 students develop an alcohol-related health problem and between 1.2 and 1.5 percent of students indicate that they tried to commit suicide within the past year due to drinking or drug use.

     While I was providing group counseling to a small group of DUI offenders, one member, Jason, told the group that he never had more than 2 drinks; it was the little man inside who became excessive.  Nick agreed, adding he often got higher than a kite, until it all came crashing down, accompanied by hangover.  When I asked if anyone ever practiced moderation, Nick sardonically replied that he quit drinking for the night when he couldn’t fit any more emptied beer cans on his window sill. 

     Eleanor asked, “Why is moderation so very difficult?”

     I suggested that excessive drinking may be a reaction to the daily barrage of internal “have-tos” that we sometimes experience.  The first sip or the first puff can often transport us into a less stressful state.  The problem, of course, is while in this stress-remitted state, we feel less inhibited and don’t know when to stop.  Or, more precisely, once invoked, our “tiger,” like Jason’s “little man,” doesn’t know when to stop.  Every member of the group was taken aback and gave a questioning look.  “Our tiger is the rebellious part that has all the anger, but also has all the fun,” I replied.  The group sighed and nodded. 

     We also have our own inner voice, I continued, along with our tiger, that are opposed to these “have-tos,” which have been embedded in our minds since childhood, from others telling us what to do.  When our own voice is too weak to stand up against these internalized “have-tos,” our tiger might intervene, but then will up the ante, refusing to be relegated out of mind again.  We will want to strengthen our own voice not just to deal with these “have-tos,” but also to set limits for our tiger.  Our tiger will accept limits when we use “want-tos” as opposed to these “have-tos,” since our tiger, above all, wants to be treated with respect.

     Eleanor asked how could they strengthen their own voice when the voice of others was embedded in their minds?  I suggested that they begin to listen for their “have-tos,” changing them into “want-tos,” or asking “What will happen if I don’t?”—and then decide.  The group was then asked to practice in pairs, one giving the other a “have-to” and the other responding, “What will happen if I don’t?”  At the end of the exercise the group acknowledged a budding sense of freedom vis-à-vis their “have-tos.”

     At the next session, the group was challenged:  “We will want to find a new addiction that is fairly low-risk, and yet very exciting.  It also needs to provide a greater lift than smoking, over-eating, gambling, even drugs and alcohol.  Yet, we cannot give something up, unless we get something as good as, or better than, what we’re giving up.  Any suggestions?”  Jason replied that anything “as good as or better than” would have to be at a higher risk and more self-destructive.

     I proposed that the greatest, most satisfying, and yet unpopular addiction was freedom.  Everyone talks about freedom.  Some say they are willing to give their lives for freedom.  Yet only a paltry few can accept their own freedom.  And probably no one willingly accepts another’s freedom.  The downside of freedom is the giving up of outside control, be it the authority of parents, teachers, priests and politicians, or the allure of alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and gambling.  Submitting to outside control provides the enormous satisfaction of not having to take responsibility for ourselves.  Someone or something “out there” will look after us. 

     As children, when we are punished for our rebelliousness by these outside forces, we learn to control our anger and comply with the orders of the day.  Yet, the anger remains buried inside.  Then in our early teens and as emerging adults, when we are too big to be spanked or denied desserts, and thus don’t fear or respect the outside forces as much, our rebelliousness is now siphoned off into excessive and compulsive appetites, called addictions.  We mistakenly believe we are celebrating freedom when we actually are displaying reckless indulgence in our favorite addiction.  The truth, of course, is that we have just exchanged one form of outside control—our parents, teachers, etc., for the other—an addiction that dominates us.  We were not taught as children to make choices based upon our own self-interest.

     But, Eleanor asked, wasn’t a false sense of freedom better than complete submission to outside control?  Yes, I said, insofar as it acknowledged her inner discontent.  The problem with addictions is that they prevent us from achieving our real goal, a true sense of self-empowerment, with the opportunity to achieve our fully-most potential.

___To strengthen your sense of self-empowerment, please view previous blog, A Peer to Peer Approach to Campus Mental Health.

William Mace, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice, has developed PsychResilience Training (PRT) for prevention and treatment of adult depression and anxiety disorders.

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