When I entered college, I wasn’t prepared for what it was going to be like — I doubt anyone is. You can listen to advice, hear stories about it, and watch movies depicting college life, but nothing compares to what it really is. Living in the dorms, being free to do whatever you please, depending on yourself to staying focused, and feeling the culture buzz around you is electric.

For me, I also brought a hidden dependency on drugs. I had been clean (other than the use of alcohol) but that didn’t last through college, and I relapsed a few times.

Addiction happens to college students just as it happens to many other groups of people. Spotting it can be difficult because of how common substances are and the attitude about them among the party scene. For those recovering, the triggers can be hard but important to spot. The stress of school can make sobriety difficult as well. For college students struggling with substance abuse through school, it’s important to know that there are options for help.

Addiction in College Students and Beyond

Though the substance abuse happening in college seems to be so carefree, addiction doesn’t discriminate and happens to everyone. With such a big party culture, college students sometimes see a blurred line between using substances casually and being dependent on them. With this behavior being so risky, it’s not a surprise that college students can struggle with identifying substance abuse as well as staying sober. In the U.S. and many other locations worldwide, addiction has become an epidemic.

When I was in college, the line for me was extremely blurry. Drugs were my problem, not alcohol, so I should be okay to drink, right? I didn’t know that answer, and so I drank — a lot. I had entered this world with an addiction and soon discovered exactly how hard it would be to abstain, though I never said it out loud. For others entering college, or who have been in college for some time, it’s important to note that though the alcohol and substance abuse seems carefree, it might not be. And it can be hard to tell when it has become a problem.

The Triggers of College Culture

For college students battling a substance abuse problem while in school, it can feel like relapse is imminent. Party culture, the importance of social interaction, and having to hold yourself accountable are all struggles within the battle to remain sober. In order to remain sober as a college student, it’s important to understand the warning signs of relapse and to identify your own triggers. These triggers can be things like going through something emotional, being at a bar, surrounding yourself with certain friends, or going to a tailgate.

The entire college experience was one trigger after another for me. I wanted to be able to party and have fun like everyone else without worrying about this problem I had. And so, I sometimes relapsed. I had to begin identifying my triggers and the warning signs that I might be close to falling off the wagon, like avoiding class or staying in bed. I had to learn how to cope with my own cravings and learn how to push past them. As a young, impulsive college student surrounded by drugs and alcohol, it wasn’t the easiest thing to learn, but I did it.

The Stress of College Life

Party culture can be a trigger for substance abuse, but so can the stresses that go along with college life. Late nights, heavy reading, studying, tests, finals, grades, and extracurriculars are all stressful aspects of college. This can lead to substance abuse to cope or prescription drug abuse to stay focused. Adderall is one of those “focus” drugs that college students may use to study. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most addictive. Education is demanding, and it can be hard to manage a substance abuse problem while managing the demands of each class requirements. The important thing is to understand that stress in itself can be a trigger.

The stress of college was a major component in my quest to stay away from drugs in college. Not only was I tempted to use one of the popular “focus” drugs, I was also driven to an “I don’t even care” mentality due to the stress. For other college students battling addiction, it’s important to be aware of these stresses and how it can affect you. Stress can also cause many physical problems that can lead to drug or alcohol use such as headaches, insomnia, or stomach pains. For me, stress itself started to become a trigger, so I had to learn how to cope.

Knowing Your Options

It’s helpful to understand that addiction is a risk in college students, that college culture and stress can be triggers, and how to identify those triggers. The next step is understanding how to cope with those triggers in healthy ways. It’s important to have a support system, which can be friends, family, or those in a support group. Check with your school or community about Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings. You may consider taking on a healthy hobby, replacing stress-induced substance abuse with another activity such as running or journaling, or removing yourself from these situations altogether.

I only wish I had known about my options sooner. However, I was in denial that I had a problem I couldn’t control. And, honestly, I didn’t want to stop having fun. However, utilizing support groups on campus and journaling became a huge help to me. I was open with my friends who became important in holding me accountable. I talked to my counselor who was understanding and resourceful. So many people wanted me to succeed, I just had to know where to look.

Though I struggled with my own substance abuse triggers and subsequent relapses while I was a college student, I graduated with my degree. It’s something I’m incredibly proud of as an alumni as well as an addict. I didn’t realize it was such a problem because on the outside, the college culture looked like so much fun. And it was — until it got out of hand. I worked through understanding my triggers, how the stress affected me, and how to cope. I used the support of meetings, my school counselor, and healthy friendships to get me through it. Though it’s a struggle, there are ways to get through college as a student battling substance abuse.

Chelsy Ranard is a writer/blogger who graduated with her journalism degree from the University of Montana in 2012. She is passionate about addiction recovery advocacy, loves to write about self-care, and works to help others through her writing. Read more of her writing on Twitter.





Image courtesy of Tim Gouw.