It’s not news that college can be stressful. The combination of an increased workload from high school, the challenge of making new friends in an unfamiliar place, and adapting to independent living away from family makes for a perfect storm of stress for the young adult.
Stress is a common and normal side-effect of transitioning in a new phase in life. But stress becomes problematic when it causes distress to the individual and an impediment on functioning, putting them at risk for stubborn mental health issues like depression and anxiety. A 2018 study by Harvard Medical researchers that looked at 67,000 college students from over 100 institutions explained, “Some stressful events cannot be prevented and, in some cases, are completely normal. But for others, a plan should be in place for family, friends and colleges to provide support… [the difference is that] Stressful life events [are] defined as exposures that the student felt were traumatic or difficult to handle.”
College Stress and Alcohol
When college stress becomes overwhelming, young adults may turn to alcohol for temporary relief. In one survey mentioned in Alcohol.org, young adults - including college students - reported turning to alcohol for relief from discomfort from a wide range of concerns:
- Struggles with family relationships
- Struggles with new friendships and romantic relationships
- Struggles to keep up in the face of a heavy academic workload
- Feelings of loneliness and low self-esteem
- Mental health concerns, most commonly anxiety and depression
- Feelings of pressure to impress people in new social situations
- A desire to lose inhibitions and gain a feeling of confidence
The stress from these combined pressures particular to college - not to mention unrelated possible life stressors, such as the loss of a family member or a break-up of a long term relationship - can lead to serious mental health degradation. The Harvard Medical researchers found that among those 67,000 college students surveyed, 1 in 5 reported thoughts of suicide due to college stress.
For a college student struggling with substance abuse, stress that would already overwhelm a sober student becomes dually difficult to manage. But that intense level of stress shouldn’t - and doesn’t have to be - normalized. A strong support system can help students manage stress and be successful and healthy.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has defined four major dimensions of recovery that, when implemented, make outcomes for recovery extremely optimistic. They are:
Health: abstaining from the use of addictive substances and maintaining regular use of prescribed medications to treat mental health or physical illness helps support physical and emotional well-being.
Home: having a safe and stable place to live
Purpose: engaging in meaningful daily activities, such as a job, volunteering, studying, hobbies, rock climbing, and/or creative expression, in addition to obtaining independence and resources to participate in social activities.
Community: having healthy and supportive relationships and social networks that respect your road to recovery
Having support and being proactive in managing stress in college can make all of the difference. Not only does stress-management lead to a higher likelihood of recovery, it also reduces the chances of relapse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “...medical specialists believe that stress is the leading cause of relapse back into drug abuse...Research shows that the brains of drug abusers are more hypersensitivity to stress, which may prompt them to relieve their stress by returning to drugs,” Addiction.com explains.
A recovery program that follows SAMHSA’s recommendations can be the best option for young adults manage stress and remain sober within the stressful context of college.