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You’re probably familiar with stories about college drinking, but have you ever given much thought to why you choose to drink alcohol or not? The latest research offers a perspective on college drinking that may surprise you-and provides an opportunity for you to explore the reasons behind your choices.

Social Bonding

From 2003-2009, Thomas Vander Ven, a researcher at Ohio University in Athens, surveyed students and spent more than 100 hours at popular campus bars, street fests, and house parties. He found that students don’t necessarily drink because of one particular reason or individual event, but instead due to a series of complex social decisions.

Vander Ven found that students feel more socially courageous when drinking and create what he calls a “system of solidarity”-collaborating with friends to experience a unique adventure each time. He also found that the social aspect of drinking is so strong that students keep coming back for more, even when there are negative consequences, whether or not they know why.

Supporting these findings, almost 60 percent of respondents to a recent Student Health 101 survey said they drink to relax and have fun, and about 65 percent said they’re influenced by what friends and other students are doing.

Dr. Pat Bosco, vice president for student life and the dean of students at Kansas State University in Manhattan, says, “There’s a dynamic of freedom at college where students are tested by peer pressure and sometimes even test their own boundaries.” According to Vander Ven’s research, this is likely because drinking together is perceived as an opportunity to bond.

Stress Relief

In addition to social motivators, some students drink when they’re feeling pressured or unhappy. In the Student Health 101 survey, about 45 percent of respondents said they drink to relieve stress or forget their worries. Another 20 percent drink to feel less nervous in social situations, saying it’s easier to talk with people if they drink.

Though you or your friends might not realize it, emotional factors can significantly impact your choices to drink or not, and how much. Whether stressed about upcoming finals, celebrating an accomplishment, struggling with self-esteem issues, or looking for an escape, it’s important to consider how your feelings are affecting your drinking decisions, and vice versa.

Jamie T.*, a senior at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, explains, “I used to drink a lot when I was overwhelmed with classes and work. My best friend pointed it out to me and eventually I stopped doing it.”

If you’re turning to alcohol for emotional release, consider finding some alternatives. For example, go for a walk, call a friend, say “no” to extra commitments, or try reframing challenges to find possible solutions. Also make use of the resources your school offers, such as the financial aid office, health and counseling services, or your academic advisor. If a problem is really getting you down, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. You can also seek support if someone else’s drinking is affecting your life.

Think About Your Choices

So, have you ever taken a few moments to consider why you drink or don’t drink? For many students, the legal drinking age of 21 affects their decisions. Close to 75 percent of the Student Health 101 survey respondents said they think in advance about whether or not they’ll drink alcohol on a specific occasion, and 70 percent have considered their personal drinking limits in general; 92 percent think in advance about how much alcohol they plan to drink on a specific occasion.

According to the American College Health Association’s 2012 National College Health Assessment, more than 30 percent of students said they didn’t drink the last time they “partied” or socialized. Of those who did consume alcohol, 60 percent had 4 or fewer drinks. But these folks still have fun!

Amy P.*, a junior at Ohio University in Athens, says she doesn’t like to feel out of control. “I only drink one or two drinks when I go out. When I start feeling buzzed, I either switch to drinking water or just stop drinking,” she explains.

5 Tips for Drinking in Moderation

  • Set limits about how many drinks you’ll have before your go out.
  • Eat a meal before drinking.
  • Keep count of how many drinks you’re having and aim for no more than one drink an hour.
  • Pace yourself. It takes 30-45 minutes to feel the effects of alcohol.
  • Alternate between alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks.
Chitra D., a recent graduate of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says, “It helps to tell friends about the limit you’ve set so that they can keep an eye on you and make sure you don’t drink more than you wanted to.”

The 0-1-2-3 Rule
Most students who drink have no more than four drinks when they party. Darcy Braggs, assistant dean of students at Georgia South Western State University in Americus, encourages the 0-1-2-3 Rule:
  • 0 drinks is a great choice, but if you drink:
  • 1 alcoholic drink per hour, maximum
  • 2 drinking occasions a week, maximum
  • 3 alcoholic drinks in a day, maximum

Social Sans Alcohol

E. Maureen Miller, director of health promotion services at the University of Florida in Gainesville, suggests that students look at the bigger social picture. “It’s important to consider other positive ways to meet people, instead of going to events where the focus is on drinking,” she says.

Ideas about navigating parties

Be Smooth at Parties

If you aren’t drinking, here are some ways to navigate social situations where alcohol is served:
  • Bring your own nonalcoholic drinks. There are sure to be other students abstaining.
  • Remember that no one really cares if you’re not drinking.
  • Avoid punch. It’s hard to know what’s in it.
  • Always hold your own drink, even when you go to the bathroom.
  • Stick with friends who respect your decision not to drink.
  • Practice ahead of time what you’ll say if someone offers you a drink. Here are some suggestions:
    • No thanks. I’ve already had enough. (No one will know you didn’t have any.)
    • I need to get up early tomorrow.
    • I don’t want a hangover.
    • I’m driving.
    • I just took my allergy pills.
    • Drinking makes me feel sick.
    • Alcohol conflicts with my religion.
    • I’m already having such a great time. Let’s dance!
    • I don’t drink, but where can I get a soda?

Diane B., a senior at York University in Toronto, Canada, says she and her friends would rather hang out at home than go to a party. “My friends and I get together to watch TV, play video games, or have movie nights. We’d rather spend time talking and laughing together than spending money on alcohol.”

Your school is sure to offer plenty of activities that appeal to a variety of students, and most will be free or low cost. Miller says, “We encourage students to explore what both the campus and community have to offer.”

Derik H.*, a sophomore at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, doesn’t drink because of alcohol problems in his family. He says, “My friends don’t care that I don’t drink and I don’t care that they do drink. If we go to a party I just have something without alcohol. Honestly, it’s really not a big deal.”

There are tons of ways to have fun and let off steam, and being mindful about why you make the choice to drink or not can help you make healthy choices and really enjoy all the bonding moments between you and your friends.

* Name changed for privacy.

Take Action

  • Identify the reasons you choose to drink or not.
  • Think ahead of time about whether, and how much, you’ll drink.
  • If you choose to drink, do so in moderation.
  • Enjoy activities where drinking isn’t the focus.
  • Stick with friends who make healthy decisions and support yours.
  • If consequences of drinking affect you, reach out for support.

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