College Students Under Stress Turn to Alcohol

New findings from a team of Canadian researchers indicate that the presence of short-term or acute stress has a significant impact on the amount of alcohol consumed by college undergraduates. Compared to the general population, college students in the U.S. are heavily affected by a highly dangerous, drunkenness-inducing pattern of short-term alcohol consumption known as binge drinking. In a study published in March 2015 in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, researchers from Canada’s Queen’s University examined the impact that exposure to acute stress has on the amount of alcohol that college students consume in any given drinking session. These researchers concluded that there is a close connection between students’ alcohol consumption and level of acute stress exposure.

College Students and Binge Drinking

In 120 minutes or less, a binge drinker imbibes enough alcohol to reach or surpass a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent (the accepted standard for legal drunkenness throughout the U.S.). Generally speaking, men need to consume more alcohol than women to qualify as binge drinkers (five drinks or more in a two-hour timespan vs. four drinks or more in the same timespan). Clearly established personal and public health problems associated with alcohol binging include steeply increased risks for purposeful or accidental bodily injury, steeply increased risks for physically assaulting someone or being physically assaulted, steeply increased risks for sexually assaulting someone or being sexually assaulted, steeply increased risks for alcohol poisoning, steeply increased risks for driving while intoxicated or riding with an intoxicated driver and significantly increased risks of dying. Frequent binge drinking participation also steeply elevates the risks for a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (alcohol abuse and/or alcoholism). Figures compiled by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicate that more than 40 percent of students at American colleges and universities binge drink at least once in any given two-week span of time. Each year, millions of students on college campuses are exposed to serious, severe or potentially fatal short-term outcomes related to binge drinking. In addition, college students in the U.S. have a substantially higher level of exposure to alcohol use disorder than the rest of the population.

Acute Stress

Under terms broadly used by psychologists and other mental health professionals, acute stress is the type of stress associated with events or situations happening in the present or near-future, as well as with recent past events or situations. Recognized indicators of this short-term form of stress include the presence of “stress emotions” (depression, irritability, anger and/or anxiety), disturbances in gastrointestinal function, spikes in heartbeat and blood pressure, breathing difficulty and tension headaches and other muscle-related complaints. People who repeatedly experience acute stress reactions have a separate and more severe form of stress exposure known as episodic acute stress. Within 30 days of exposure to highly traumatic circumstances, some individuals develop a diagnosable mental health condition called acute stress disorder or ASD (the lesser-known counterpart of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD).

Acute Stress and College Drinking

In the study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism, the Queen’s University researchers used data from a small-scale project involving 75 individuals to estimate the impact that acute stress has on the amount of alcohol a college student consumes in any given drinking session. All of the participants were undergrads between the ages of 17 and 23. The researchers used a procedure called the Trier Social Stress Test to provoke acute stress reactions in these undergrads. Next, they asked the students to participate in a half-hour drinking session. Some of the students had unlimited access to alcohol during this session, while others had unlimited access to a placebo designed to look and taste like alcohol or a clearly identified non-alcoholic drink. The researchers used a questionnaire called the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory to gauge the participants’ anxiety levels before acute stress exposure, after acute stress exposure and after the consumption of alcohol or the other beverages. The researchers concluded that the students with access to alcohol substantially increased their beverage consumption after exposure to acute stress. However, neither the students who consumed an alcohol placebo nor the students who consumed an identified non-alcoholic drink increased their level of consumption after acute stress exposure. Based on these findings, the researchers believe that acute stress levels have a significant impact on the amount of alcohol consumed by college students in a typical drinking session. Interestingly, general anxiety levels do not appear to have the same impact on alcohol intake.

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