Does everyone go to keg parties in college? Does alcohol make you happy? Can coffee cure a hangover?
UCF psychology professors Michael Dunn and Robert Dvorak have heard them all. The two dedicate their careers to studying alcohol consumption among college students, health-compromising behaviors and intervention methods for safer drinking habits.
They’re here to clear up some myths about alcohol and share their insights on useful strategies they’ve seen work in forming a healthy relationship with alcohol.
Just for the record: In Florida, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drink alcohol, and the Office of Student Conduct lists a detailed set of rules that all students at UCF must abide by.
MYTH: Everybody drinks.
Dunn: In reality, almost half of our incoming students are complete abstainers when they start college. For the most part, one-third to almost 40 percent of them don’t drink at all through the first year. Of those who do drink, most of them drink a lot less than most people think they do.
There still is a cultural belief that there’s a lot of drinking-related stuff going on at college. That’s because we tend to think about the people who drink a lot more because they tend to be more obvious that they’re drinking. They’re doing all the things you’d expect to see — slurring and stumbling and engaging in risky behavior.
Dvorak: In my class every year, I’ll ask, “What is the average amount of drinks that a college student has when they go out to drink?” People will answer 6, 8, 10 — these ridiculously high amounts and it’s nowhere close to that. For the average college student on a drinking night (Friday or Saturday), it is closer to two drinks, maybe three.
One of the best interventions that we have for college students involves correcting that misperception. Perception is not reality.
MYTH: Metabolisms for men and women are equal.
Dunn: Women metabolize alcohol a little bit differently and their body composition tends to have more fat content than men. For those physiological reasons, it takes less alcohol to have the same effect on a woman than it does on a man. So generally, women should be drinking less and not trying to keep up with the guys thinking it’s going to have the same results.
MYTH: Alcohol isn’t a serious drug.
Dunn: About 2,000 college students die from alcohol-related causes every year. That number hasn’t changed a lot in recent years. And there are various things, such as car accidents, that can be attributed to consuming alcohol, but a lot of students don’t realize death by alcohol poisoning is possible. They’ll take shots, play drinking games or accept a challenge to chug a fifth of hard liquor. You wouldn’t take a bottle of prescription medicine off the shelf and just down the whole thing and expect to be fine. Alcohol is a drug, and you can overdose and die.
MYTH: Alcohol makes you happy.
Dunn: Alcohol is a depressant. For the first 30-60 minutes you feel a little bit happier and maybe a little more energized, but then after that you generally just experience depressant effects — sleepiness, dizziness and nausea — because it irritates your stomach. But people are having a good time, so they aren’t thinking about that as much.
When those positive feelings start to go away, they want to drink more to get them back again. But like most drugs, once you have a dose of those good effects and it starts to go away, you generally can’t get it back by drinking more alcohol.
Do’s and Don’t’s for Health and Safety
DO: Drink less and be happier.
Dunn: You’ll have a better time if you drink less. We often pose a challenge to students. When they drink fairly frequently, we say, “The next time you’re going to go out and drink, just try to drink half as much as you normally would and pay attention throughout the night to see what it is like.”
Almost all of them report back that they actually had a better time. They weren’t as sleepy and tired at the end. They remembered the whole night. They didn’t have a hangover in the morning.
DO: The big six safety strategies.
- Don’t drink and drive.
- Make sure your drink is always in sight.
- Drink with people you trust.
- Pre-set a limit on your drinks, and/or set a deadline for going home.
- Avoid shots.
- Alternate your alcoholic beverages with water.
Worth Repeating: Hang with a tight crew.
Dunn: I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to stick together with people you trust. We have a colleague who researches sexual assault of college students. Some of her findings show that about 25 percent of college females are sexually assaulted in their first semester of college. In the vast majority of those cases, the individuals were under the influence of alcohol to some extent.
“It’s so important to stick with somebody you trust and to look out for each other.”
It’s so important to stick with somebody you trust and to look out for each other. Obviously, socializing is part of what you’re doing when you’re out and alcohol is involved. But you’ve got to be careful.
And look out for people who aren’t your friends. If you see somebody who looks like she or he is in trouble, doesn’t know what’s going on or is being taken advantage of them, step in. Step up and help out.
DO: Stand out in a positive way.
Dvorak: One of the things I’ve noticed is people are concerned other people are going to make fun of them for using the safety strategies we give them. In our studies, I’ll pose the question, “What do you think about a person who uses these strategies?” and everybody rates that individual very, very positively. They’ll mention things like, “They’re responsible. They’ve got more self-control. They’re better students.”
People like to stand out in really positive ways. So, one of the intervention steps we’ve started to share is informing students, here’s what other students think about those who use these safety strategies.
DON’T: Be afraid to say, “I’m good, thanks.”
Dunn: I was in the habit whenever I went out with other people, if there was drinking going on, I just participated because everybody else was. As I started doing more of this work in developing programs to help college students drink less and be safer, I thought, well I’m going to try what I’m recommending to them to see what it’s like to not drink at all and resist all those people offering me drinks.
It was awkward at first, but after the first couple of times, it really wasn’t awkward anymore. You have something else to drink, and you just say, “I’m good” when people encourage you to drink something alcoholic. It’s really not the big deal that most people think it is.
DON’T: Try to cure a hangover with coffee or more alcohol.
Dunn: There is research, and none of that stuff works.
To lessen the effects of alcohol the next day:
- Drink less alcohol.
- Stay hydrated throughout the evening and drink a lot of water before going to sleep. That will help somewhat with headaches.
- Have something to eat before you drink. Alcohol on an empty stomach is the worst combination because alcohol is a solvent and it is really going to irritate the lining of your stomach.
Resources on Campus
Student Health Services
UCF’s Student Health Services offers integrated prevention, treatment and recovery programming for students. Services range from study spaces and peer mentoring to counseling and recovery meetings. The Collegiate Recovery Community welcomes any student in recovery or those who simply want to be part of an alcohol-and drug-free environment.
This organization is not a recovery group or program. Rather, it is a group of students of all ages who socialize without alcohol. Sober Knights meets on Thursday nights while school is in session and plans activities such as paintball, movies or bowling nights where they can have fun together.
“The students I’ve met are some of my closest friends,” Sober Knights leader Page Smith says. “About half of our students are in recovery, but the other half is just looking for a healthy alternative. There’s a lot of pressure in college that you have to go to bars, tailgates or parties and drink to meet people. At Sober Knights, we build genuine friendships.”