Distressed drinking

Lauren Fitch

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It is there at most weddings, birthdays and other celebrations. It is there when you’re sitting around watching the big game. It is there when you go out with friends to have a good time. It is there waiting for you at home after a busy day or a long week.

Alcohol is enmeshed in today’s culture in a variety of roles and settings. It is a cornerstone of the stereotypical college life, and research shows the number of college students who binge drink has increased to 40 percent, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Today, the NIAA will sponsor a National Alcohol Screening Day to promote awareness of alcohol abuse among college students.

The screening consists of a survey, which will take 10 to 15 minutes to complete, and a counselor will be on hand to review students’ results and guide them to other resources if necessary. Screening sites will be set up at seven locations on Grand Valley State University’s Allendale and Pew campuses, with varying hours of operation ranging from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Dan Suitor, an intern counselor at GVSU involved in organizing the on-campus screening, said the program is not promoting abstinence from alcohol, but rather moderate use in a responsible manner.

“Anything done to the extreme can be detrimental to your health,” Suitor said.

He added when a person starts skipping class because of a hangover, driving drunk or letting alcohol affect relationships, then it is a problem.

The top two reasons most college students drink are for social purposes and for emotional relief, according to a study cited by http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov. Suitor agreed that in his time as a counselor, many students reported stress as a motivator in their drinking habits.

“We all deal with stress in certain ways,” Suitor said. “There are indeed times when people use alcohol to de-stress.”

With the demanding workload of classes, financial concerns and relational issues, college students encounter many sources of stress, and the expected college lifestyle makes alcohol very accessible and a logical method of reducing stress for many students.

Andrea Bostrom, an associate professor of nursing, also noted the use of alcohol to combat stress, but she said the attempted remedy is misguided. She said the effect of alcohol can mask the symptoms associated with high levels of stress, but alcohol can actually exasperate the root of the problem.

“There is not a physiological reason why someone who feels stressed would drink,” Bostrom said. “Alcohol is not something the body requires with the stress response.”

The stress response can be summed up as a fight-or-flight reaction to a threatening or unfamiliar situation. The body launches a series of physiological and behavioral reactions when stressed in an effort to maintain its natural steady state, or homeostasis.

Different scenarios cause stress for different people. The stress response begins with a release of certain hormones in the brain that cause a chain reaction leading to heightened responsiveness of the central nervous system, the adrenal system and cardiovascular system.

Bostrom described it as “pumping up” the body and said chronic stress can lead to negative effects such as difficulty sleeping or concentrating and irritability.

“In the short run alcohol can help (with relieving stress),” Bostrom said. “But in the long run it causes too many other problems and dangerous situations.”

A review of literature published in the Clinical Psychological Review in 2003 said college students’ use of alcohol to reduce tension was the strongest predictor of problematic drinking. Bostrom explained the rational for such findings.

“People mistake (drinking) for something that relieves stress,” Bostrom said. “When a person feels overwhelmed, they take a drink and feel calmer; it’s a rewarding experience.”

However, Bostrom said the reward does not last. Alcohol is a depressant that reduces people’s inhibitions. This can repress the stress response, but it also damages the liver, central nervous system, muscles and various other body functions. This damage leaves the body ill-equipped to handle future stress and does nothing to remedy the original stressful situation.

Bostrom recommended more constructive ways of dealing with stress, such as regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep and establishing a good support system of friends and family.

“This strengthens the body and gives you the best resources to deal with everything,” Bostrom said.

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