Stress and Alcohol Use Among College Students: What Are the Real Dangers?

As stress rises, so does the likelihood that a college student might reach for alcohol to cope. Diverse stressors and other social influences put young people at risk if they don’t have alternative ways of coping close at hand. Find out what resources are available to college students so they can navigate stress with empowered strategies.

Stress and alcohol have something major in common: they both operate by hijacking your power and control. Put them together, and you may be looking at an overwhelming case of disorder. But many people do put them together—often because they think that alcohol might fix the problem of stress. But, of course, the use and abuse of alcohol can bring its own complicated kind of stress. And, at the end of the day, alcohol never really fixes any problems.

When it comes to stress and alcohol use among college students, the real problems often get lost and neglected underneath. In other words, stress is caused by real-life issues, and, for lack of a better solution at hand, someone might try to drink the stress away. The drinking can easily become an additional real-life issue with a host of complications. So, what really is the bottom line? College students need accessible resources to help them take active care of their stress, their overall mental health, and the personal issues that can weigh so heavily on their daily lives.

The Realities of Stress and Alcohol Use Among College Students

Stress in college is a heavy burden, and it typically comes at a challenging time of transition between adolescence and adulthood. The layers of stress are diverse and abundant. From one angle, these young adults may be stepping out from under their parents’ wings for the first time and making decisions independently for the first time. They are approaching new social scenes from this stance of fresh independence. They are carrying the weight of numerous expectations from their past and for their future.

Stress in college might be related to:

  • Schoolwork and the pressure to perform well
  • Pressure from parents and family
  • Living away from home
  • Financial responsibilities
  • Relationships
  • Social and peer pressure
  • Challenges related to mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, trauma disorders, and others

And when coping mechanisms translate into alcohol abuse and/or addiction, the consequences can include:

  • Missed classes and deadlines
  • Declining performance
  • Risky behavior
  • Driving under the influence
  • Problems with authorities
  • Dangers of alcohol poisoning and long-term health effects
  • Vulnerability to physical and sexual assaults
  • Destructive patterns in interpersonal relationships
  • Substance use disorders
  • Expanding mental health issues and disorders

Typically, if a college student is drinking alcohol to cope with stress, the more time goes on, the more frequently they will drink and in greater quantities. And these patterns of alcohol abuse can have larger implications for an individual’s behavioral health—beyond the immediate consequences alone.

A Penn State study revealed:

  1. The more stressors a student experienced, the more likely they were to drink on any given day.
  2. The more stressors were present, the more alcohol they would consume.
  3. Those students who were prone to stress-related drinking throughout their college career were more likely to have problems related to alcohol use disorders.


This study observes a clear link between stress and alcohol consumption among college students. The connection suggests that it is just as important to address the stressors behind the drinking as the problems associated with the drinking itself. Considering their levels of stress, college students may not be in an ideal position to recognize the complexities of their stress on their own. Neither are they likely to recognize that there are alternative ways of coping with that stress.

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How Can a Student Keep Their Power as They Navigate College Life and Drinking?

It’s true that college is a unique time of making independent decisions, but that doesn’t mean that these young adults should have to face all of their difficult decisions empty-handed. There are, certainly, useful resources that can come in handy better than alcohol can.

It is important for college students to recognize that there are different ways of coping when they face stressful situations. Some of the available strategies actually work toward solving the problems and reducing stress and others—such as substances—do not.

Helpful Resources Available to College Students:


  • On-campus academic counseling and advice
  • Mental and emotional health counseling through a student health center or an outside therapist

When someone chooses to take risks with drinking, they’re actually risking their power of choice on a bigger scale. This is true not just because there may be punitive consequences, but also because alcohol has a sneaky way of commandeering their control and their power. Patterns of alcohol abuse and addiction effectively withdraw a person’s control. But a young person can get ahead of their stress and potential alcohol problems at the same time by accessing some of these resources. Empowering students with the ability to make informed choices from the start will help them move gracefully through college and beyond.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.