Social drinking can be extremely pleasurable and, in moderation, may even have health benefits. One snag is that, although alcohol initially acts as a 'pick-you-up' and mood - enhancer, it is ultimately a depressant; so a heavy night drinking is likely to leave you feeling worse rather than better. Also, the more you drink, and the more often you drink, the more of it you need to feel the same effects. Over a period of time habitual over-consumption can have a wide range of consequences - social, psychological and physical. Individuals often are not aware how much they are drinking or its impact on those around them.
If you have picked up this leaflet it may be through idle curiosity or perhaps you are worried about your own drinking or that of a friend or relative. It has been estimated that on a typical day 10,000 people in the UK seek help for their own, or a friend's or relative's alcohol difficulties.
The picture amongst students
As a student you are particularly vulnerable. If you are away from the family home and in a new environment, there are all sorts of new experiences to be sampled, but there are many sources of potential stress as well. You may find yourself (perhaps for the first time) insecure about your academic ability. You may have to manage your life in ways that you did not have to before. It can be hard to balance work and social commitments. You may worry about money, or social skills, or sexual attractiveness or performance.
In a survey of second year students in 10 UK universities1 , 11% were 'non-drinkers', 89% 'drinkers'. Looking at the drinkers group:
- 61% of men and 48% of women regularly exceeded recommended limits of 14 units a week for women, 21 units for men.
- 15% reported hazardous drinking (more than 51 units a week for men and 36 units for women).
- 28% reported' binge' drinking
A study of the 1995-98 cohort of Cambridge undergraduates2 revealed that 10% answered a set of standard questions about their drinking habits in a way that suggested 'problematic drinking'.
This is perhaps not surprising. Much of university and college social life seems to be centred on college bars or pubs. Peer groups often support excessive intake and may resist or scorn any attempt to cut down on drinking. Youth culture is partly about risk taking and pushing limits, but being away at university means that familiar and respected figures that might have offered help and guidance may not be around.
Respect for others
Students who drink can often offend others who do not, simply by making the assumption that everyone drinks. There are many reasons for not drinking, including a person's preference, faith or culture, or factors like intolerance to smoky environments. So when you are arranging social events or meetings, go out of your way to include others and respect their choices. Why should students who dislike pubs or bars have to miss out and be socially marginalised?
Measuring your intake
If you are concerned about your drinking or that of a friend, there are simple things that you might want to bear in mind.
Consumption is normally measured in 'units'. A unit is the equivalent of half a pint of 3.5% alcohol by volume (ABV) of beer, lager or cider. It is also equivalent to a 25ml shot of spirits of 40% ABV, or a small glass of wine at 9% ABV.
Provided that you have no liver damage, it will take about an hour for your body to break down and metabolise one unit. However, the concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream at any one time is dependent on many factors in addition to the amount you drink, such as body size, weight, stomach content, and rate of drinking. Women have consistently higher blood alcohol levels for the same amount ingested because of their lower body water component.
It is generally believed that alcohol is safe to drink at levels of up to 2-3 units per day if you are a woman, 3-4 if you are a man (i.e. up to 2 pints a day). There is an increasing risk to your health if you are consistently consuming over these levels. After a period of intoxication, it is strongly advised that you avoid alcohol completely for at least 48 hours to allow time for liver damage to recover.
Binge drinking, i.e. drinking a great deal in one evening or over a short period such as a weekend is regarded as particularly hazardous to health.
Problems with Drink
Most people who drink at all will have experienced at least one episode of alcohol self-harm - a hangover! If you consistently drink fairly heavily, your tolerance to alcohol's effects will increase and you run the risk of developing dependency. This may be physical, psychological, or (most commonly) both.
If you recognise the presence of two or more of the following, it is time to do something about it:
- Your drinking is occasionally out of control and becoming more so
- You are regularly drinking beyond safe limits
- You may be drinking more to achieve the same effect, or in the mornings, or on your own
- Your studies may be suffering with difficulties in concentration, mood swings and having to contend with feelings of guilt
- Relationships with others may be dwindling, and your outlook and lifestyle restricted by a need to consume alcohol
- When you try to reduce intake you recognise sweating, tremors and anxiety.
Most drinkers stop well short of dependency, which is relatively rare in students.
Attitudes to alcohol
Much of your drinking behaviour as a student is dependent on context and environment.
Alcohol can readily become associated with some of the issues and transitions that you are trying to deal with at the time. Its ability to help you to relax, to reduce tension and to disinhibit, lends itself to being used to avoid or manage some difficult situations. Some of the issues involved may be loss, separation, sex, relationships, and responsibility. Drinking in the college bar may give you a relaxed sense of community, but habit may make it hard to relax without it.
If you grew up in a family where alcohol was regularly misused, you will have experienced at first hand many of its ill effects. You may now find yourself experiencing feelings of alienation, dissatisfaction, or apathy. These may be related to the way you survived a possibly chaotic situation at home, and these feelings may resurface in an environment in which drink is so freely available.
Reducing or limiting intake
Here are some ideas that may help you to cut down your intake:
- Keep a diary of intake in units to clarify your pattern of use and quantities. Cutting down works best if you set limits for yourself that you feel you might reasonably stick to.
- Identify those occasions, times of day, companions, or moods when you are prone to excessive use.
- Rather than just focusing on reducing your alcohol intake, think about increasing some other activity. There are lots of different and novel opportunities to do something different whilst you are at university - use them; you may uncover an unknown aspect to your personality.
- The influence of others can be powerful, so use it to support yourself; friends may well have been concerned about you for some time.
- It can be helpful to write up a balance sheet of the pros and cons of drink, in order to clarify whether you are really determined to cut down.
- Drinking with food rather than instead of it can be important.
- It might also help to try to cut down your intake with the support of a group.
It can be extremely distressing if someone you care about is drinking at levels that give rise to problems for themselves or others. Although you can encourage and support them to make changes, it is they themselves who must ultimately decide (and be prepared) to do the changing. If you are particularly sensitive about alcohol (e.g. because of related problems in your family) it may be helpful to bear this in mind.
Some suggestions to help are:
- Allow space for them to talk about anything that may be bothering them
- Rather than labelling them, focus on the effects drink is having on others, as well as on themselves
- Make clear what behaviour is unacceptable to you and avoid arguments
- Do not cover up for them
- Ensure that the burden of support does not rest only on you, and that you have time for yourself too.
Reading this, you may begin to recognise aspects that are relevant to your present situation or to a situation into which you fear you may be slipping. Sometimes it helps to talk things over with someone else in order to disentangle your thoughts, feelings and actions.
There are several sources of confidential help within the University and locality:
- Your college tutor or nurse
- Your GP or Practice nurse (ask for a physical check-up if you are worried)
- The Cambridge Drug and Alcohol Service
- Self referrals tel: 01223 723020
Offers a comprehensive range of services for people experiencing difficulties with alcohol
- 185 East Road, Cambridge CB1 1BG
Tel: 01223 350599
A local charity providing counselling, education and support for people with alcohol-related problems
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Tel: 01904 644026 (national)
Tel: 01223 883900 (local)
Tel: 0207 7403 0888
Offers support to relatives and friends of problem drinkers.
And, of course, the counsellors at the UCS will be very willing to talk things over with you and help you work out what is best for you to do. We can particularly help with any underlying problems that may be associated with drinking excessively, but we will usually refer you to one of the above agencies for help with dependency or for medical support.
There are useful pamphlets in the Resources Section of the Counselling Service. Enquire at reception (you do not need to say what sort of information you are looking for, or to be seeing a counsellor already).
1 Student Mental Health, Use of Services and Academic Attainment, Surtees, Wainwright & Pharoah, 2000
2 Alcohol and Drug Use in UK University Students, Webb, Ashton & Kamali, The Lancet, Oct 1996