At uni, alcohol is probably one of the most and least talked about topics at the same time. Especially here in the North East, drinking culture is an essential part of student life, but the extremely damaging effects this culture can have on many people is only discussed on very rare occasions. This can be particularly challenging for students suffering from anxiety disorders such as GAD or social anxiety (as well as other mental illnesses, which I’m not going to discuss in this post).
The relationship between alcohol and anxiety is a double-edged one – on the one hand, alcohol can function as a sedative and make you feel more at ease, but at the same time, it can also become a trigger and increase anxiety. As someone who has always had issues with parties and social situations where I have to engage with people I don’t know or don’t feel 100% comfortable around, I often found drinking very helpful as it usually gave me the confidence I needed to engage in conversations and enjoy myself rather than spending the whole night worrying about saying or doing something wrong.
This worked really well for a while, but I soon noticed that I started to feel anxious when drinking, particularly when I’d had one beer too much and began to feel a little nauseous and dizzy. Since nausea and dizziness are also symptoms of anxiety, experiencing these feelings reminded me of having panic attacks – and consequently triggered them. This seemed to get worse the more often it happened. While I tried to drink less, I was also more aware of the effects the alcohol had on me and often started panicking as soon as I experienced them because I felt like I was losing control and was scared of being sick. My alcohol related panic attacks seemed to be even worse than regular ones, and when they happened I would usually spend hours on the bathroom floor vomiting, shaking, and thinking I was going to die.
But even though this was absolutely horrific and it took me about 2-3 days to recover from nights like these, I still continued to drink. Since I drank fairly little and usually stuck to beer and wine, I thought I was being responsible, but I realise now that my behaviour was already quite problematic. I was so used to having alcohol to help me socialise at parties, that I frankly couldn’t do without it anymore.
Eventually, the panic attacks got so bad that they would start even after just one beer, meaning that I had no choice but to quit drinking completely. Luckily, I’d graduated from high school at this point, didn’t have to go to parties I didn’t wanna go to anymore and felt a lot more comfortable in myself as well as with the people around me. Thanks to all of these positive changes, giving up on alcohol wasn’t that difficult for me personally, but I also started to become more aware of how much it actually impacts our everyday lives.
At school, you are very likely to feel excluded if you don’t drink because this is the time when the majority of people first start experimenting with alcohol. At an age were everyone is trying to make sense of their identity, alcohol seems to become a big part of it. In some ways, people almost seem to define themselves through drinking.
Frequently, drinking also appears to be more like a competition than a way of having fun: Who can down the most shots in 5min? Who had more pints last night? Who can have 10 jägerbombs without throwing up? How much alcohol you had at the weekend becomes the number one story to tell, which normalises unhealthy behaviours like binge-drinking and results in many young people not acknowledging the seriousness of it.
You would think this would change at university, but sadly, most events at uni still very much revolve around drinking or at least encourage it, which makes it hard for people who have a difficult relationship with alcohol to participate, let alone feel comfortable (be it because of anxiety issues or for other reasons). Especially in Fresher’s Week, it can be really difficult to meet people and make friends if you don’t drink because the most popular socials are club nights (which can be challenging for people suffering from anxiety anyways) or involve alcohol in some way or another. Even during term, a majority of socials, particularly those of sports teams, consist of going to a pub or club and getting drunk together. So even though it’s very rare that people actively pressure you to drink, you can easily feel left out if you don’t.
On these grounds, I believe we need to have more conversations about alcohol and how we can use it without abusing it. It’s a fact that many students have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and either don’t realise it or ignore the issue, which is why we need more education on how to recognise alcohol dependency and what can be done to tackle these problems. We also need to start thinking about ways we can create safe social spaces for people who don’t want to drink or don’t feel comfortable being around drunk people, ensuring that not drinking stops being a social limitation.