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College Students Can Manage Back-to-School Relapse Triggers

4 minute read

In fall 2019, almost 20 million people will attend college in the United States. A little more than 12 million will go to school fulltime while about 7.8 million will be part-time students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

For many of these people, heading back to school means a blur of activity colored with the promise of a fresh start. For students who are trying to live free from drugs and alcohol, the chance to start over is a huge gift. But college presents with various triggers for relapse to drug and alcohol use.

According to the results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables (NSDUH) about 33 percent of fulltime college students between the ages of 18 and 22 reported past-month binge drinking, and about 20 percent reported past-month use of an illicit drug.

Here are some of the most common triggers for drinking and drug use in college, coupled with healthy coping mechanisms that can turn things around.

1: Academic Pressure

Many people fear the perceived pressure that comes with college-level work: both the need to get good grades and the push to become a leader on campus in order to demonstrate expertise. Whether the goal is to transition into the workforce after graduation or to enroll in grad school, the need to get good grades and qualify for competitive academic programs is significant. Many students feel the pressure from the first day of their freshman year.

Rather than attempt to relieve this pressure with binge drinking, college students can:

  • Create a written plan for all the work they need to accomplish, starting with mapping out big projects and exams, and breaking down each one into actionable, bite-sized pieces.
  • Get the sleep they need to be awake and aware during class.
  • Recognize when a subject is difficult and ask for help from the professor and teaching assistants.
  • Know when to say “no” to a commitment that is too intensive or will conflict with the ability to achieve higher priority objectives.

2: Social Pressure

Feeling accepted by a community of peers on a social level can be just as stressful as academic pressure. If peers regularly drink or use drugs, it can be difficult to abstain and still feel a connection with the group.

Instead of feeling like it’s necessary to be like the group and drink or get high, students can:

  • Spend time with their peers when they are not drinking and getting high.
  • Seek out new peer groups where substance abuse is not a focus.
  • Try to connect with new friends on a one-on-one basis, where drinking and drug use will not be part of the experience.
  • Connect with new people based on shared interests, like a sport or an extracurricular group.

3: Curiosity

College is a time of exploration, and for many, first time use and/or regular use of substances begins during these years. According to the 2014 NSDUH, on an average day, about 7,000 fulltime college students tried alcohol or a drug for the first time. When substance use begins as a means of managing college stressors, it’s a serious problem.

Rather than viewing substance abuse as a rite of passage, students can consider:

  • The potential risks of a single use of any substance, especially one that is purchased off the street, as its makeup is virtually unknown.
  • The high rate of addiction among those who use substances regularly for any reason.
  • The life-changing risks associated with unsafe choices made under the influence.
  • The recovery period after drinking and getting high and how it can impact academic performance.

4: Heartbreak

Drugs and alcohol play a big role in the dating scene at college. Many people meet at parties and bars while under the influence, and it can have a significant impact on the value of the connection and the subsequent relationship. In any situation where substances play a role, there is the potential to “medicate” the ups and downs with more drugs and alcohol.

Instead, students can:

  • Look for romantic possibility with someone who does not drink or use drugs regularly.
  • Find a commonality in a romantic partner that extends beyond a social group, such as shared interests or beliefs.
  • Maintain strong friendships.
  • Ask for help from a therapist or counselor if feelings become overwhelming.

5: Untreated Mental Health Symptoms

Many significant mental health disorders begin during the late teens and early 20s. It is not always easy to identify confusing feelings and difficult responses to life as signs that there is something bigger going on.

If life often becomes overwhelming or dramatic, and using drugs and alcohol to manage those feelings is the only way out, it might be time for students to:

  • Seek the support of a therapist.
  • Talk to family members who may be experiencing similar difficulties.
  • Consider whether or not an addiction to drugs and alcohol has developed.
  • Understand that treatment may need to include medication and/or treatment for a co-occurring addiction disorder.

Are you concerned that drinking or drug use is becoming a problem? How can you manage triggers more healthfully?

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