The Fun of Being Drunk Is All in Your Head, Not the Bottle

Psychologist and addiction expert offers a much-needed reality check about the benefits of drinking alcohol as well as its much more tangible drawbacks.

Professional Help
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Binge drinking in college is out of control. About 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by underage kids in the U.S. is in the form of binge drinks. Each year, an estimated 696,000 college-age students are assaulted by a peer who has been drinking and 1,825 die from alcohol­-related incidents, including car crashes.

To curb this dangerous trend, new research shows that a reality check may be in order. After analyzing 19 separate alcohol expectancy challenges among more than 1,400 college students across the country, scientists at The Miriam Hospital found that challenging college students' beliefs about the rewards of drinking can reduce both the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption.

"If you believe alcohol gives you 'liquid courage' or that drinking helps you fit in or be more social, you're likely to drink more," says the study's lead author, Lori A.J. Scott-Sheldon. "[But] if we can prove to students that many of the perceived positive side effects of alcohol are actually due to their expectations, rather than the alcohol itself, then we could potentially reduce frequent binge drinking and its negative consequences."

For Professional Help, Scott-Sheldon repurposes the group intervention her team examined in their Psychology of Addictive Behaviors paper and offers five do-it-yourself strategies to kick the binge-drinking habit and maintain a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Identify your alcohol expectancies. Create a list identifying how you think people feel and behave when they drink alcohol. You might be surprised to find out that many people focus on the positive effects of drinking alcohol (e.g., alcohol makes us have more fun, be friendlier, and feel more relaxed) and often fail to consider the negative effects of alcohol use (e.g., alcohol reduces my ability to think or concentrate, could cause me to get in trouble with the law). This is true even for people who have never consumed alcohol.

Understand the real effects of alcohol. When you drink small amounts of alcohol, you experience a "buzz." People often feel mildly aroused, excited, and energized. Most people believe, as they drink more, they'll continue to experience these positive effects but, since alcohol is a depressant, it slows down your central nervous system. Those initial positive feelings diminish over time as more alcohol is consumed. You begin to feel tired and your movements slow. If you drink more, you won't regain that "buzz" but will only exacerbate these negative effects. Drinking excessively in a short amount of time may also lead to alcohol poisoning and death (PDF).

Consider how you learned about alcohol's "positive effects." Beliefs about the positive effects of alcohol predict future drinking behavior. Long before kids even begin to drink, they've already learned their alcohol expectancies from their parents, peers, and the media. The availability of alcohol and modeling of alcohol consumption at home (e.g., drinking to relax after work) affect children's beliefs in the positive effects of drinking. Advertisements are also a significant source of children's positive alcohol expectancies, since watching adults drinking and having fun promotes the positive effects of alcohol for kids.

Enjoy drinking without drinking any alcohol. Students often perceive heavy "binge" drinking (more than four servings for women, five for men on a single occasion) to be highly enjoyable because it's often associated with partying and other social events. But it isn't only the alcohol that causes the euphoria -- it's also the positive expectancies triggered by the social setting. In college bar experiments, where some students were led to believe they received alcohol, only half were able to identify if they really received alcohol. In fact, students who were given a placebo had just as good a time as the alcohol drinkers.

Have fun without drinking too much. There are many social activities you can enjoy without drinking. Go dancing, play games, or take in a movie to name a few. If you choose to drink, do so responsibly. Set your drinking limits before attending social events, keep track of your consumption, and alternate between alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages. Be prepared for potentially dangerous situations where high-risk drinking occurs. Find a friend you can trust to keep you safe from harm during a party and select a designated driver to keep you safe after.