Science explains why we binge drink

To this day, whenever I glimpse a red plastic Solo cup, I think of college. As someone who didn’t actually party or drink very much, it’s weird that this association even exists in my mind, but there you have it. Even the word itself, “college,” elicits a knee-jerk mental image of lighthearted debauchery and bacchanalian revelry. It would seem that, for many, the idea of college is somehow intrinsically linked with the idea of serious alcohol consumption. It is a point in one’s young adult life when hangover “cures” are discovered, booze is purchased in varying degrees of legality, and handfuls of embarrassing drunk stories are accrued.

Sadly, the college drinking experience does not leave everyone unscathed. Alcohol poisoning and incidents resulting from intoxication on campus have been responsible for numerous fatalities recently. Students begin their evenings believing that they are participating in the time-honored college tradition of drinking to excess, and by the end of the evening everything has spiraled out of their control.

This act of excessive alcohol consumption is known as binge drinking. Dr. Michael Mantell, author of the recently-published 25th Anniversary Edition of the 1988 original, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: P.S. It’s All Small Stuff, told me that binge drinking can be defined as “a pattern of behavior that results in blood alcohol levels to 0.0.8g/dL, which typically happens after women drink on average 4 alcoholic drinks and men on average 5 alcoholic drinks, in about a 2 hour consecutive period of time.”

The psychology behind binge-drinking is often directly related to self-esteem issues. Mantell described to me how binge drinking is “one way of numbing negative emotions, beliefs that one is deficient, needing acceptance by others, limited in some fashion including self-control and lack of self-awareness. Depression, anxiety, stress are all related to binge drinking.” Binge drinking typically has very little to do with actually enjoying alcohol, and is more an attempted cover up of one’s perceived deficiencies.

But does college life exacerbate binge drinking tendencies? Not surprisingly, Mantell says yes, it does. He describes how many kids entering college feel nervous about fitting in, and since alcohol has become a necessary staple for socialization in college, it can become a crutch for those kids. “The unstructured, unsupervised time, the increased availability of alcohol, making alcohol an accepted part of socializing, the need of college students to fit in, the social pressures they feel to be accepted, strong sorority and fraternity influences with partying a prominent part of it, genetic predispositions, and lack of parental involvement all speak to why college kids drink more and how the college environment exacerbates binge drinking,” says Mantell.

But the weight of blame cannot be placed entirely on colleges and universities alone. It goes back to high school, and even junior high. Mantell says, “Let’s face it, most kids coming to college already have experience in drinking alcohol.” If you were to ask the high school version of myself what my views on drinking were, I probably would have rolled my eyes —because all I ever seemed to get were heavy-handed scare-tactics which more or less said, “If you drink, you WILL DIE.” And the presentations which weren’t meant to terrify the alcohol right out of you were so cringe-worthy they couldn’t be taken seriously. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that a group of students at my school performed an interpretive dance about the dangers of drugs and alcohol which was set to “Total Eclipse Of The Heart.” And there were masks involved.

Nobody ever seemed to approach the concept of drinking from a pragmatic standpoint, and as a result, many of my peers began to view temperance or moderation as outdated notions which were reminiscent of our stuffy teachers. We all went into college viewing drinking as some sort of outrageous rebellion against our former lives —when, in fact, we were all just sort of falling into typical collegiate stereotypes.

While there is a definite need for colleges to address binge drinking more effectively, it’s also entirely likely that authority figures and adults need to be up-front and communicative with high-schoolers about drinking, as opposed to attempting scare tactics which don’t actually have prolonged effectiveness. Only then will young adults understand that binge drinking is the most detrimental form of escapism.

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