Alcohol Abuse & Grad School: How to See the Signs & Avoid Consequences
While drinking is a common way for graduate students to decompress and socialize, the line between bar hopping and binge drinking can easily blur. Use this guide to understand the motivations, signs, and symptoms of excessive alcohol consumption and avoid negative consequences.
Common Reasons Graduate Students Drink Alcohol
In the U.S., as many as 63% of American adults drink alcohol, making it a fairly common practice. Naturally, this norm has seeped into college life, with students typically drinking to celebrate good times or unwind during stressful times. Considering that graduate students often face more stressors than undergrads, they may also find themselves drinking for one of the reasons outlined below.
Celebrating milestones is a common motivation behind knocking back a few drinks and letting loose, especially after a stressful period or event. After all, what better way to celebrate the end of a successful semester, research project, or dissertation defense than popping a bottle of champagne? This motivation is fairly popular, with Sunnyside — an app based around creating mindful drinking habits — finding that 8% of users reported drinking as a form of celebration or reward.
Coping with Negative Emotions
As a graduate student, your academic environment typically involves keeping up with coursework, fulfilling your research obligations, and meeting assignment deadlines. Failing to accomplish your academic objectives or receiving negative feedback on important projects can evoke negative emotions like sadness, stress, and anxiety. Even though alcohol is a depressant, a poll by American Addiction Centers revealed that drinking makes about 95% of alcohol users happy, confirming alcohol’s ability to suppress negative emotions in many people.
Easing Social Anxiety
Graduate school typically offers many social interaction opportunities among classmates within and outside the campus setting. Unlike classroom interactions that usually involve academic matters, outside-school interactions are more personal and may force you to burst out of your social bubble. While networking with peers and interacting with other students is sometimes difficult or awkward, alcohol acts as a social lubricant, making it easier to break the ice and get a conversation going.
Managing Social Isolation
Graduate students in master’s and PhD programs may grapple with isolation and loneliness, particularly those enrolled in online degree programs. The absence of physical interactions and peer connections can lead to emotional distress. This heightened sense of loneliness and a lack of social support can sometimes drive students towards alcohol consumption to cope, exacerbating an already challenging situation. Alcohol typically increases your endorphins, leaving you in a euphoric state where you feel less lonely. Additionally, alcohol consumption locations like bars and clubs offer a social setting where you can interact with others to combat loneliness.
Relieving Academic Pressure
Apart from completing assignments, attending lectures, and preparing for exams, the fear of failing also contributes to academic pressure for grad students. Maintaining an effective work-life balance schedule can help you decompress to avoid burnout. Although it’s not a long-term solution, alcohol can momentarily minimize the overwhelming feeling of academic pressure.
Succumbing to Peer Pressure
As much as internal factors play a predominant role in influencing grad student’s alcohol habits, external factors like peer pressure may also have an impact. Grad students working in small groups on group projects spend a lot of time together. You may find yourself getting roped into attending parties, trivia nights, and other social events where you end up overindulging in alcohol to fit in with your classmates. Research shows that peer pressure is a major contributor to risk-taking behaviors (e.g., alcohol, drug, and tobacco use).
Drinking Patterns Defined
As drinking is so ingrained in American culture, it can be difficult to gauge whether your habits are healthy, especially when you are surrounded by peers who drink excessively. As this is often the case in college environments, it’s important to remain aware of how your drinking habits compare to moderate, binge, heavy, and severe drinking patterns. Review the table below to gauge how your drinking patterns align with moderate, binge, heavy, and abuse drinking patterns.
Assessing Your Alcohol Intake: Signs and Symptoms of Excessive Drinking
While understanding the nuances between drinking patterns is a helpful starting point, problems with alcohol cannot just be measured by the number of drinks a person consumes per hour or within a given week. If you’re still unsure whether your drinking habits are impeding your life, health, or academics, read through the following indicators of excessive drinking and consider:
- Have you ever experienced this symptom during or immediately after drinking?
- If so, how often have you experienced this symptom over the past month?
- Has this symptom gotten worse over time?
Keep these questions in mind as you read through the following behavioral, emotional, and physical signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse. It may be helpful to grab a pen and paper to write your answers down.
Behavioral Indicators of Excessive Drinking
Do you feel guilty about your drinking habit? Do you wake up to cravings and occasionally need a drink first thing in the morning to help you steady your nerves? If your answer to these questions is a yes, then you might need to reach out for help with your drinking.
Concealing Drinking from Others
Hiding how much or how often you drink is a warning sign that you are aware that your drinking habits may cause concern from loved ones and that you don’t want to or can’t slow down. Hiding your drinking from others may include:
- Physically hiding bottles or containers.
- Lying about how many drinks you’ve had.
- Drinking alone or “pre-gaming” before events or meeting up with other people.
- Hiding or lying about how often you drink.
- Concealing how much money you’re spending on alcohol.
Declining Academic Performance
Excessive alcohol consumption can significantly affect your cognitive function, causing memory loss, dementia, and impaired concentration, significantly impairing your learning capability. In fact, there’s a 46% greater chance of heavy drinkers developing cognitive impairment later in life than non-drinkers, adding weight to the fact that alcohol harms your brain functions. Indications of declining academic performance may include:
- Decreased concentration in class.
- Reduced participation in class.
- Declining grades overall.
Inability to Limit Drinking
Alcohol dependence often comes with strong cravings and withdrawal symptoms, filling your mind with constant thoughts of drinking. The need to alleviate withdrawal symptoms such as tremors and headaches makes putting the bottle down difficult. Signs that you’re struggling to limit alcohol consumption include:
- Blacking out even when you intend to drink moderately.
- Craving alcohol, even in settings where it doesn’t belong.
- Being unsuccessful in your attempts to cut down on your consumption.
Neglecting Responsibilities and Commitments
Neglecting your commitments and responsibilities is a warning sign that you know the consequences of not fulfilling your obligations but cannot align your priorities because of alcohol. Neglecting your obligations can include:
- Failing to attend lectures.
- Submitting assignments past their deadlines.
- Missing Continuous Assessment Tests (CATs) or exams.
Emotional Indicators of Excessive Drinking
Identifying the emotional indicators of excessive drinking isn’t as straightforward as identifying the physical or behavioral indicators. Here’s a list of some signs you can be on the lookout for to guide your assessment:
Increased Irritability or Mood Swings
Alcohol typically causes a dopamine surge in your brain and inhibits GABA neurotransmitters, which is what gives you that relaxed or buzzed feeling. As you continue consuming alcohol or once you stop and the neurotransmitter effect wears out, it causes a rebound effect that significantly reduces dopamine and increases GABA, leaving you depressed. Mood swings refer to this switch from a joyful to a sad mood or vice versa. The common signs to look for to identify whether you’re experiencing mood swings are:
- Becoming depressed, angry, or combative while drinking.
- Expressing emotional unpredictability when you’re joyful one minute and sad or socially isolating the next.
- Feeling a heightened sense of impending danger.
Isolation or Withdrawal
Isolation or withdrawal is a coping strategy you may use to hide from the judgmental eyes of your peers or family who condemn your drinking habits. Alcohol dependence may also cause chronic body changes such as weight gain or loss, prompting you into isolation to avoid being questioned about it. Common signs that someone is isolating themselves include:
- Skipping social events such as birthdays intentionally without a reasonable explanation.
- Spending a lot of time alone in your room or house.
- Declining participation in activities you previously enjoyed.
Physical Indicators of Excessive Drinking
It can be hard to objectively gauge physical changes in yourself, but there are some concrete changes you can look out for. Physical indicators of excessive drinking to watch for as you assess your drinking habits include:
Changes in Appearance
Alcohol dependence often influences your financial allocation, leading you to prioritize purchasing alcohol over food, which ultimately causes weight loss. Excessive alcohol consumption can overload detoxifying organs in the body, such as the liver, causing organ failure. The negative impact of alcohol on appearance includes:
- Yellowing of eyes signifying jaundice due to liver disease.
- Drying and other changes in skin complexion.
- Gaining weight.
Excessive alcohol consumption can affect the integrity of the stomach lining, causing inflammatory disorders. Defective stomach wall cells affect nutrient absorption, minimize the production of gastric acid that eliminates gut bacteria, and cause leakage of fluids into the gut. Physical indicators of digestive system issues include:
- Acid reflux
Contrary to the common myth that alcohol relaxes and calms you, resulting in better sleep, drinking too much negatively affects your sleep patterns. Research shows that between 35-70% of people who use alcohol suffer from insomnia. Alcohol reduces the REM sleep stage, disorganizing your sleeping pattern, which can cause fatigue. Furthermore, the muscle-relaxing effect of alcohol on your throat muscles causes breathing-related difficulties like sleep apnea, which causes frequent awakenings. Signs of alcohol-related fatigue include:
- Frequent hangovers
- Daytime sleepiness
- Mental fog
Like any other drug, frequent consumption can increase your tolerance to alcohol, requiring you to drink more to feel the same buzz than you had in the past. Common warning signs of increased tolerance you can look out for include:
- Needing to consume more drinks within a given period to feel the same effects.
- Appearing “normal” or relatively sober after consuming a large amount of alcohol.
- Spending more money on alcohol as tolerance increases.
The hippocampus area of the brain is responsible for converting short-term memory into long-term storage. However, excessive alcohol consumption temporarily affects this process and reduces memory consolidation. The following are some signs to help you determine whether alcohol is impairing your memory retention:
- Repeating yourself or telling the same stories while drinking.
- Needing others to repeat themselves in the moment or the day after drinking.
- A fuzzy recollection of conversations or events from the previous night.
- “Blacking out” or continuing to drink without remembering what happened.
- Being unable to remember what happened while you were drinking.
- Waking up in unfamiliar places or with strangers.
Alcohol’s sedative effect reduces neurotransmitter stimulation, pushing your brain into nervous overstimulation as a response. As the inhibitory effect decreases when your alcohol levels decrease, the nervous system overdrive causes tremors. Delirium tremens is the most severe form of this effect that occurs about two to five days after your last drink, causing shaking, hallucinations, high blood pressure, and sometimes fevers. Below are some signs that you’re experiencing these symptoms:
- Involuntary shaking of hands that affects fine motor skills, like holding a cup.
- Quivering voice when speaking.
- Sweating profusely.
Understanding the Risks of Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Now that you’ve considered your drinking habits in relation to warning signs, it’s important to understand the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption. As you read through the following short- and long-term risks, consider whether you have ever experienced them, and how often. Again, you may want to write down or consider how often you have experienced these risks and how much they have impacted your life.
As drinking impairs our cognition, movement, and speech, it can lead to the following painful and embarrassing short-term consequences.
Accidents and Injuries
You may sometimes be unable to walk in a straight line or perform simple tasks like tying your shoelaces or picking up a small object when under the influence of alcohol. Ethanol causes inflammation and death of your cerebellar cells, causing temporary cerebellar ataxia, or the inability to coordinate muscle movements. The cerebellar cortex in the brain is responsible for motor coordination, balance, and posture.
Alcohol affects the prefrontal cortex in the brain responsible for decision-making and reduces your inhibition, which would typically help you weigh the pros and cons of your decisions. For this reason, you’re more likely to make decisions that promote alcohol consumption, regardless of their negative consequences in a drunken state. A good example is staying out all night before finals.
Blackouts and Memory Gaps
Blacking out from excessive alcohol consumption is an indication of the body getting overwhelmed. Besides the physical consequences of blacking out and memory loss, the guilt and emotional distress of not remembering what happened can take an emotional toll on you.
The impaired decision-making that comes with alcohol consumption can put you in unsafe situations. For example, deciding to operate heavy machinery like power tools leaves you vulnerable to accidents. Trusting strangers when under the influence increases your chances of getting robbed, stranded, or sexually assaulted.
In addition to negatively impacting our health and mental well-being, impaired decision-making while drinking can lead to serious long-term consequences that our sober selves will have to reconcile and manage.
Mental Health Problems
Although alcohol temporarily suppresses negative emotions, alcohol dependence can cause long-term mental health problems. Temporary relief from negative emotions may prevent you from dealing with the root cause of your problems. Over-reliance on alcohol can also permanently alter your brain chemistry, exacerbating depression and sadness.
Drinking and Driving
About 37 people in the U.S. die in drunk driving collisions every day. That means there is a death every 39 minutes, even though we’ve had it drummed into our heads that we should never drink and drive. Apart from the blurred vision that comes with excess alcohol consumption, slowed reaction times can also contribute to accidents when driving.
Besides affecting your memory, concentration, and speech, alcohol use can cause long-term cognitive impairment through Wernicke-Korsakoff or wet brain syndrome. Thiamine is essential to facilitate glucose breakdown in the brain and provide neuronal function energy. And since alcohol affects thiamine absorption, it causes wet brain syndrome, leading to death in 10-15% of cases or permanent brain damage.
Liver Damage and Health Complications
Alcohol dependence severely affects several body organs, such as the brain, liver, kidneys, and digestive system. Since the liver is primarily responsible for breaking down alcohol, it’s the most affected organ. It predisposes you to long-term liver diseases like cirrhosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and liver cancer.
Alcoholism and Dependency
As you get into alcohol dependence, your body organs adapt their functions to accommodate the changes alcohol induces in your body, leading to alcohol tolerance. Suddenly cutting down your alcohol intake to break your drinking habits rather than pursuing a gradual approach exposes you to severe side effects due to the above-mentioned organ changes.
According to Alcohol Rehab Guide, about one in every 20 deaths globally results from alcohol-related disease, injury, accidents, or suicide, emphasizing that the short and long-term consequences of alcohol dependence can ultimately lead to death. Mental health impairment can drive you to suicidal ideations, the physical health effects can cause your body to shut down, and impaired judgment can put you into life-threatening situations.
Combating and Preventing Unsafe Drinking Habits
Chances are high that you’ve accidentally knocked back one too many drinks at least once during your time in grad school. If so, you’ve likely experienced one or more of the signs, symptoms, or risks associated with drinking (hangxiety, anyone?). You may have even experienced some of the short-term risks that can come along with drinking too much alcohol, perhaps waking up with a few mystery bruises or a foggy memory of the night before.
However, if you found yourself identifying with many of the signs and symptoms of excessive drinking, and you’ve experienced more than your fair share of the short-term (and maybe even long-term) consequences, it’s time to stop and consider your drinking habits before it seriously impacts your graduate school experience and overall health. If you’re ready to begin tackling your unhealthy drinking habits, consider implementing some of the following tips.
Establish a Support Network
When combating unhealthy drinking habits, your company can significantly influence the outcomes. Below are some tips you can use to help you establish supportive networks in your journey to quit or limit your drinking:
- Educate the people around you about your triggers and the general alcohol recovery process.
- Join support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), to share your struggles during recovery and get accountability partners.
- Minimize contact with former drinking buddies and alcohol enablers.
Develop Healthier Coping Strategies
If alcohol has been your coping strategy for a long time, finding a healthier way to decompress or handle stress is crucial when fighting alcohol dependence. Analyze the following tips to develop healthy coping strategies:
- Engage in hobbies and social activities.
- Set clear goals and priorities to avoid getting overwhelmed.
- Participate in stress reduction activities such as meditation.
Practice Healthier Drinking Habits
Healthy drinking habits involve moderating your alcohol consumption to prevent dependence. If you’re looking for ways to establish healthier drinking habits, review the following tips:
- Give yourself abstinence breaks.
- Alternate drinking alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
- Know your limits.
- Choose low-alcohol options such as beer and wine.
Seek Professional Help
Seeking guidance from medical specialists can guide you in understanding the steps to take in alcohol recovery and how to manage withdrawal symptoms and other chronic health effects. If you’re unsure of which professional services to seek, below is a list of experts who can help you:
- Alcohol abuse counselor
Alcohol Awareness Resources
Regardless of your geographical location, numerous resources are available to help you navigate the process of combating alcohol abuse. Review these 15 resources as a starting point.
- Alcoholics Anonymous. This free-to-join group connects people globally trying to overcome their drinking problems.
- Al-Anon Family Groups. This is a support group where loved ones of people suffering from alcohol addiction can share their experiences and learn how to provide a supportive recovery environment.
- Association of Recovery in Higher Education. This national support college organization provides recovering students with the community connections and education they need to turn their lives around.
- Center Point Drug Abuse Alternative Centre (DAAC). This California-based organization combats social problems like alcohol abuse by offering rehabilitation and treatment services.
- Centerstone. It’s a non-profit health organization with medical professionals such as physicians and clinicians offering treatment solutions for substance abuse disorder patients.
- College Drinking Prevention. This organization under the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) focuses on providing information on alcohol abuse, specifically among college students.
- Drug and Alcohol Abuse Prevention Program (DAAPP). This college-based program offers one-on-one weekly classes on abstinence and harm reduction for recovering alcoholics.
- National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP). This non-profit organization connects recovering alcoholics with medical specialists for private therapy, outpatient, or residential treatment.
- National Association of Social Workers (NASW). This community of professional social workers offers follow-up and accountability support to recovering alcoholics.
- Prevention Action Alliance. This nonprofit organization focuses on promoting mental health wellness among substance abuse patients.
- Recovery Answers. Recovery Answers is a Massachusetts General Hospital research institute that promotes advancements in recovery along with treatment and recovery solutions.
- SAFE campuses. It’s an independent organization that creates a safe learning environment for campus students free from gender violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse.
- SMART Recovery. This Self-Management and Recovery Training program offers individual empowerment, guiding students to develop the willingness to accept positive changes in their substance abuse habits.
- Sober Nation Podcast. It’s a network of shows where people at different points of their sobriety stages talk about their experiences, encouraging others to continue their sobriety journey.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA is an agency under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, making information on substance abuse and mental health impairment more accessible.