Now that you’re in college, you’ve got the freedom to make your own decisions about your life. That includes how much and how often you drink. But before you start partying, get wise to a few facts you might not know. Like that you can die from drinking too much. Or that a certain blood alcohol level can put you in a coma. The responsible use of alcohol involves understanding the effects of alcohol physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively. Learning to recognize potential warning signs of alcohol abuse is also an important part of responsible drinking.

Alcohol and Its Effects

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, that is, a drug that slows down the nervous system. As you drink, alcohol enters your bloodstream and affects your brain, where it alters your response time, your motor responses, reflexes and balance, your muscle control, your judgment and ability to delay or inhibit your words and actions, and your emotions. Although alcohol use in moderation is considered socially acceptable in many parts of our culture today, excessive use and/or abuse of alcohol is associated with significant problems, for the individual and for society.

Physical Effects: loss of muscle control, impaired reflexes, vomiting, and unconsciousness. Because alcohol goes directly into the bloodstream, overuse of alcohol can effect almost every system in the body. Long term use can cause cancer, brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, weight gain, and birth defects if drinking while pregnant. Excessive drinking can also cause serious accidents, injuries, and death. For example, more than one out of every three motor vehicle fatalities involves alcohol and one out of every four drownings are alcohol-related.

Psychological Effects: alcohol can affect your school work and family and social relationships. Studies have shown that students who drink alcohol to excess end up with poorer school grades and take longer time to complete their degrees. Because alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment, risky and violent behavior can result. For example, students impaired by alcohol often engage in vandalism and physical fights. Friendships and romantic relationships can also be jeopardized. Alcohol can lead people to say or do things they might regret, like making a bad decision about having sex with someone. Alcohol abuse can also lead to family conflicts and broken households.

Social Drinking

  • Maintains a safer Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)
  • Uses the substance to enhance an activity; it is not the main focus of the activity
  • Occasional hangovers
  • Some embarrassing behavior
  • No major negative consequences

Regular Use

  • More frequent hangovers
  • Aggressive feelings
  • Possible fights
  • More arguments
  • Danger of addiction

Frequent and/or Heavy Use

  • 5 or more drinks, three times a week
  • Hangovers
  • Possible sickness
  • Need more to “feel it” (tolerance)
  • Conflicts with others
  • Possibilities of blackouts
  • Likelihood of addiction
  • Denial begins to develop

Addiction

  • Drinking is part of daily functioning
  • Use causing problems in any area of person’s life and continues to use despite the problems.
  • Uses alcohol in inappropriate ways
  • Changes in tolerance (increases then decreases)
  • Behavior no longer matches person’s value system
  • Decisions made so not to interfere with the drinking

As alcohol use increases toward the frequent heavy use range of the continuum, problems managing one’s life become unavoidable – alcohol becomes more important than our responsibilities, our activities, our friends (unless they’re “drinking buddies”), and our families. Problems toward the left side of the continuum are much less frequent and much more manageable. By the way, frequent heavy use is defined as five or more drinks at least three times a week; addiction may occur with very heavy use (8-10 or more drinks, per drinking occasion) only once or twice a week (the binge drinker). If you fear that you are creeping too far to the right on the continuum, or one of your friends is, seek help or talk to your friend about what you see happening. Consulting with a counselor in either case is a real good idea; some valuable information and support become available once you take that step. And if you vehemently deny, or your friend denies, that substance use is a problem, that often indicates that it is a problem. To get one’s life back under control requires using less (or not at all); if you can’t do it on your own, seek help.

More Warning Signs to Watch For

  • Drinking before class, or in the morning
  • Inability to stop drinking once started; getting drunk when the intention was to have a couple drinks
  • Drinking to cope with or escape from pressures
  • Drinking and driving under the influence of alcohol
  • Injuries, accidents, aggressive behavior as the result of drinking
  • Frequently drinking to the point of intoxication
  • Developing a tolerance; requiring more and more alcohol to achieve the same effect
  • Blackouts or memory loss as a result of drinking
  • Drinking in order to feel comfortable with others socially
  • Drinking alone
  • Drinking to cope with anger, sadness, frustration, or other unpleasant emotions
  • Legal involvement related to drinking: DWIs, charges of drunk in public or drunk and disorderly

Help Is Available

If you are concerned about your own or a friend’s drinking behavior, please do not hesitate to call some of the following resources:

  • Counseling Center, 203-576-4454
  • UB Health Clinic,  203-576-4712

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