Alcoholism. It’s just for after graduation…right?

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“It’s not considered alcoholism until after you graduate,” so the saying goes.  You may have heard these words echoed throughout UNC’s campus before.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for this saying to be heard on any campus in this country.  Someone, somewhere formulated an idea that drinking excessively in college is not only okay, but normal.  However, once you leave college, drinking in abundance no longer becomes okay or normal.  With a degree in hand, you are suddenly an alcoholic.  Here is some word-math to break the saying down:

college student + drinking excessively = not an alcoholic.

college graduate + drinking excessively = you’re an alcoholic.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t necessarily believe this math adds up.  I decided to dig into the research and see what real scientists and doctors have to say about this.

For starters, alcoholism has no age limit.  Alcoholism can affect anyone, at any time.  Of course, alcoholism doesn’t just happen out of the blue.  It takes time.  I’m not talking about the few seconds it takes to walk across the stage to grab your diploma and head off into the sunset, I’m talking months to years.  So how, then, does alcoholism start to brew? (Yes, pun was totally intended.) Well, this time period can be characterized by an “almost alcoholic” stage. Let me explain…

There is a common belief in our society that you are either an alcoholic or not.  You have a problem with alcohol, or you don’t.  Unfortunately, it’s not as clear cut as that.  Two doctors, Doyle & Nowinski, found that there is a spectrum when it comes to drinking behavior.  The spectrum ranges from “Normal Social Drinkers” to “Almost Alcoholics” to “Alcoholics”.

The “Almost Alcoholics” stage is characterized by these traits:

  • You continue drinking the way you always have despite one or more negative consequences. (Like getting an underage drinking ticket, DWI, getting into trouble in the dorms, having a hangover, being sent to the emergency room, etc.)
  • You look forward to drinking. (For example, not drinking all week and anxiously waiting to get drunk on the weekends.)
  • You drink alone and not just socially. (This doesn’t necessarily mean going “ham” by yourself. A lot of different factors come into play here, mainly your reasoning behind drinking alone.)
  • You sometimes drink to control an emotion or physical symptom. (For example, drinking to relieve social shyness, anxiety, stress, boredom, or physical pain.)
  • You and/or your loved ones are suffering as a result of your drinking. (This could include saying or doing things you did not intend to a friend/family member while you were drinking, or a friend having to care for you while you are drunk, etc.)

You may be thinking, what’s the big deal? A lot of college students have some of these qualities associated with being an “almost alcoholic,” and they’re all fine.  I had the exact thoughts.  A lot of people may view it this way too.  It’s because, in the world of college, the “almost alcoholic” stage has been normalized.  It is being replaced with the label: “being a college student.”  No one ever talks about this, because they assume it’s just how young adults behave for a period of time until they graduate college and enter “real life.”  The thing is, real life is always happening.  Whether you are in college or not.

These doctors did not decide to make up the “almost alcoholic” part of the drinking behavior spectrum to crush spirits.  I am pretty sure they are just trying to say, “Hey, sometimes drinking can cause problems, and sometimes if you don’t take a step back to think about these problems, it could turn into a disorder like alcoholism.” And a disorder like alcoholism, is nothing to joke about.

This post is not meant to point fingers, and say, “You are definitely an ‘Almost Alcoholic’, you need to get yourself together.” But it is meant to inform you about the spectrum of drinking behavior, and how part of that spectrum has been normalized in college culture.

If you are looking for more resources on this topic, here are a few:

You can also make an appointment in the BASICS program to talk to an Alcohol and Drug Prevention Specialist about concerns/questions you may have about drinking.  BASICS stands for Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students.  BASICS is completely confidential, and free if you refer yourself.  You can contact basics@unc.edu at any time!

Is alcohol actually bad for your brain?

I’m sure you’ve heard people say something like this before: “Your brain doesn’t stop developing until your mid-twenties, and alcohol can negatively impact your development.” But what does that even mean? Is it just a blanket statement for why alcohol is bad? Is it a scare tactic to keep you from drinking? If you’ve wondered this before, here’s some info about what’s actually going on in your brain when you’re drinking:

  1. The communication between your brain cells slows down. Alcohol is a depressant, which means that it depresses synaptic activity, or the communication happening between neural cells. As a result, your central nervous system and cerebral cortex slow down, which means that you can’t process information from your senses as quickly, and it takes longer to send messages from your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. Ever felt like everything was happening in slow motion when you were drinking? This is why.
  2. You get a dopamine rush. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that causes you to feel a sense of pleasure. It gets released as your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) rises. Sometimes people keep drinking once the rush is over so that they can experience it again—unfortunately, this can lead to dangerously high levels of alcohol in your blood (and no additional pleasure).

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    From “Alcohol, Drugs, and Brain Development,” http://www.speaknowcolorado.org
  3. Your frontal lobes are impaired. This is important, because your frontal lobes are basically the CEO of your brain. They monitor what’s going, make plans, and coordinate action—allowing us to solve problems and make decisions. That’s why you might feel like your judgment is seriously different than normal when you’re drinking enough to impair your frontal lobes (Note: This starts happening at a .04 to .05 BAC, which depending on your size and some other factors, could be as few as 1-2 drinks).
  4. Balance and coordination are a struggle. This is because alcohol enters your cerebellum, which normally helps you walk, hold onto things, balance, etc. Your cerebellum generally starts feeling it at a BAC of approximately .07 to .08.
  5. You have to pee—a lot. This is partly because alcohol is a diuretic. It’s also because alcohol impacts your hypothalamus, which regulates a number of bodily urges like thirst, hunger, and yes—the urge to urinate. While the impact on your hypothalamus makes your body temperature and heart rate decrease, it makes your urge to urinate increase.
  6. Your memory is impacted, sometimes to the point of blackout. Your hippocampus, which is the primary structure in your brain that forms memories, is not able to tolerate alcohol as well as other parts of your brain. So, it’s entirely possible that someone can be up walking and talking normally, but have absolutely no memory of what happened. For more info about what happens when you black out, check out BuzzFeed’s 10 Facts about Blacking Out that Actually Make So Much Sense.

Those are some things that can happen any time you drink alcohol. But what about heavy drinking? (Note: Heavy drinking does not (necessarily) = alcoholism/dependence. The NIH defines it as drinking 5 or more standard drinks on one occasion 5 or more times in the past 30 days.) Heavy drinking can result in difficulty with a number of cognitive functions, including the formation of new memories, abstract thinking, problem solving, attention and concentration, and perception of others’ emotions.

The good news? Most of these effects are reversible. People who stop drinking are able to recover these abilities. However, researchers believe that the damage can sometimes be irreversible when individuals are drinking 3 or more drinks per day. The frontal lobes of some heavy drinkers literally shrink as a result of chronic drinking.

If you’re going to drink, the important thing to remember is to try to keep your BAC at a safe level. Here are some risk reduction strategies you can try:

  • Stay hydrated (with water)
  • Eat a (nutritious) meal before you drink
  • Pace yourself—consider avoiding drinking games and shots, which will spike your BAC quickly
  • Keep track of how many standard drinks you’ve had
  • Know what’s in your drink/make your own drink
  • Drink alcohol with a lower percentage of alcohol
  • Get plenty of sleep (i.e., don’t go out after pulling an all-nighter—fatigue has a strong impact on BAC)

Stay tuned for more risk reduction strategies to come!

For more information, see:

Kuhn, C., Swartzwelder, S., & Wilson, W. (2008). Buzzed: The straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Available at UNC Libraries!

Kaitlyn B. is the Program Assistant for Resiliency Initiatives at Student Wellness. Read their bio here.