How to Know if You Should Consider a Sober Semester

College is a fun four (sometimes more) years. It’s an opportunity to take classes you don’t know anything about, find out what you’re really good at and meet new people. Sometimes, though, those four-ish years can become overwhelming- especially trying to balance a full course load and evolving social life.

However, in an atmosphere that encourages going out, it’s hard to say no sometimes. Who wants to pass on a night out with friends, even if it means a night of really heavy drinking that you might not even be up for? Hannah, a University of Michigan sophomore, noticed this drinking culture over the past year and decided to change her habits. “It's easy to get caught up in campus culture, and a lot of the time, drinking isn't even really something you want or intend to do. It just happens on weekends because you go with the current,” she says. Realistically, going out can be a huge part of college, but those nights can start to add up and affect much more than just your caloric intake for the night.

According to Dr. Roy Stefanik, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, overdrinking consistently “can damage the tissue lining to your stomach and cause liver damage.” Long term drinking causes more than just physical damage, though. “Emotionally, alcohol can significantly worsen depression or bipolar disorder. If you are prone to mood swings or impulsivity, it can make it much worse, as well as contribute to poor judgement and irritability,” says Dr. Stefanik. Mental and physical health aside, constantly drinking too much can also cause problems in your relationships and overall productivity, too.

If you have found yourself over drinking as part of your going out routine, it might be time to consider minimizing your consumption or seeking additional help. Here are signs that your drinking may require attention.

1. Apologizing to friends after a night out

Dr. Stefanik notes aggressive or uncharacteristic behavior while drinking as a possible indicator one is drinking too much or too consistently. So, if you often find yourself apologizing to your friends, parents or siblings after a night out that may be a sign your drinking has become unmanageable.

2. Using alcohol as an eye opener

Dr. Ellen J. Mangin, an internal medicine specialist at Abington Hospital in Philadelphia, PA, notes that using alcohol as an eye opener can be a warning sign of alcohol abuse. “You often see this in patients who wake up, and drink alcohol first thing,” says Dr. Mangin. One way this sign may present itself is by having a drink to calm your nerves or drinking after a night out to control your hangover.

3. Self medicating with alcohol

Another subtle sign of alcohol abuse that is often seen with college students is self medication. According to Dr. Mangin, patients often do this so they are able to function. “We find a lot of people who have a dual diagnosis, where they have an underlying depression or bipolar or anxiety, using alcohol as a tool to manage their symptoms,” says Dr. Mangin. Although this may seem to be helping, it’s actually worsening your symptoms.

4. Getting into legal trouble as a result of over drinking

In addition to arrests for underage drinking and disorderly conduct, which are two of the most common reasons college students are arrested, DUI’s are also common on college campuses. All of these cases will likely affect your college standing and future, and may also injure others as well. If you have found yourself in legal trouble after over drinking, it could be the result of a one-time incident, or it may be a sign that there is an underlying problem. 

5. Not remembering parts of the night

“Blacking out,” or not remembering parts of the night can seriously affect your mental capabilities. In fact, in recurring cases, over drinkers’ mental functioning can be affected through “tremors, seizures, weight loss or gain and altered sensorium (reaction time),” says Dr. Mangin. You don't need to over drink to have a good night. Try incorporating a two drink maximum next time you go out instead.

If you checked “yes” to more than one of these signs of a possible reliance on drinking, a sober semester might be the right option for you. Stefanik also recommends “reducing your academic load at your current school or taking a job for the semester, which may promote structure for your day while you obtain care.” However, if you really feel like you’ve lost control, Dr. Stefanik suggests attending a community college closer to home so you are near a support system.

Making the decision to forego alcohol for a semester, even though you know it is the right step, may require changing your lifestyle. For example, finding a new hobby or making new friends that share your mindset will keep you on track.

Before taking the leap, Dr. Stefanik suggests getting evaluated by a mental health provider either through the school counseling center, a private practitioner or the community mental health center. “Many colleges have Alcoholics Anonymous groups (AA) on campus that support sobriety,” Dr. Stefanik says.

At the end of the day, being honest with yourself about your drinking is the first step to taking control of the college drinking atmosphere. It may end up that setting a maximum drink quantity, or limiting the amount of nights you go out, works. If not, there are other options for you and people to help you get control of your life back.

If you are concerned about your drinking or a friend’s drinking, find out more about the Alcoholics Anonymous near you.