Many assume that college-aged people are too young to develop a substance use disorder or that drinking in college is just part of the college experience and nothing to really worry about. In fact, college-aged people are at high risk for developing substance use disorders because they are prone to high-risk behavior, have a lot of freedom for the first time, and also feel a lot of pressure from new responsibilities. Sometimes dealing with a substance use disorder means delaying your college plans. People in recovery who go to college face many challenges in staying sober, most notably the stress of classes and being in a social environment where many people drink. If you are going to college while recovering from addiction, here are some tips for maintaining your sobriety.
Manage your schedule.
Stress is one of the biggest challenges for any college student, and that’s especially true if you’re recovering from addiction. It’s neither possible nor desirable to avoid stress entirely. Being afraid of stress can stress you out too. However, setting up your schedule well can help keep your stress levels tolerable. New students sometimes try to do too much, underestimating the difficulty and volume of their course load. Some majors require students to take certain courses in certain semesters. That’s fine, but you probably don’t need to add much to that. Instead of trying to blast through a major as quickly as possible or trying to do everything, focus on what’s most important. It’s also important to remember to schedule study time. You’ll probably need at least two or three hours a day to study, so don’t completely fill up your schedule with other commitments.
Find sober housing.
There is a lot of drinking among college students so it’s important to distance yourself from that as much as you can. Typically, the worst options are living in a frat or sorority house, followed by off-campus student housing. Most campuses have sober dorms, and often drinking and drugs are not allowed in dorms at all, so those may be good options. Keep in mind though, that enforcement of alcohol on campus is often lax, so there may be a lot of drinking in supposedly dry dorms, but it usually happens behind closed doors. The best option may be to find a sober roommate in an area off campus that’s not dominated by students.
Participate in structured activities.
Many people worry they won’t have any sort of social life in college if they don’t drink. That’s not true at all. Most colleges and universities have an abundance of clubs and activities that are fun and great for meeting people who share your interests. It could be chess, rugby, German, archery, or whatever else. It’s almost guaranteed that some on-campus club or activity will interest you.
Make sober friends.
There is a lot of drinking on college campuses, but not everyone drinks. In fact, around 30 to 40 percent of students drink little or not at all. That leaves a pretty big pool of friends to choose from. As you get into higher level classes, you also meet more dedicated students, since the people who are mainly interested in partying either drop out or go into easy majors. As noted above, structured activities are a great way to make friends who share your interests. You can socialize around something that doesn’t involve drugs or alcohol.
Get some exercise.
Exercise is one of the best ways to control stress and anxiety. It boosts serotonin, dopamine, and endorphin release and lowers blood pressure and heart rate. Exercise also helps you think better. It increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive functions like planning, self-control, working memory, emotional regulation, and attention. Exercise also enlarges the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays an important role in creating long-term memories. In short, not only does exercise help you manage stress, but it also helps you learn more efficiently. So it’s crucial to find a way to get a bit of exercise most days.
Get plenty of sleep.
College students sacrifice sleep far too often. Many even boast about pulling all-nighters or getting to early class despite only a few hours of sleep. However, skipping sleep to work is almost always counterproductive. Sleep is when the things you learn during the day become consolidated in long-term memory. Even a few days of too little sleep can significantly impair cognitive performance. Your attention, working memory, and self-control all suffer. Perhaps most importantly for people recovering from addiction, lack of sleep also increases anxiety. You feel much more stressed and overwhelmed by things that would be no big deal if you were well rested. Adequate sleep is crucial for managing stress and thinking clearly.
Take time to relax.
Between classes, studying, and activities, it’s easy to forget to take time to relax. You can’t fill every moment of your day with activities and expect to function effectively. Try to schedule at least half an hour just to do nothing. Maybe watch TV or chat with friends. Take a walk. Since stress accumulates throughout the day, it’s usually a good idea to take five or 10 minutes whenever you can just to take some deep breaths and relax.
Go to meetings.
It’s important to keep up with 12-step meetings during college. It’s easy to feel like you have too much to do or that you’re living in the campus bubble and your meetings are outside of that bubble, but it’s important to go anyway. Going to regular meetings reminds you to keep prioritizing your recovery and helps you deal with the stress of college life.
Volunteering is an important part of the 12-step process. Conveniently, volunteering is also a big part of campus life. You’ll never find a higher density of volunteering opportunities than on a college campus. It’s easy to get involved and you can usually volunteer with friends or make new friends in the process.
Burning Tree West is a transitional college program dedicated to helping adults between the ages of 18 and 29 recover from addiction. Our campus is located in Tucson, Arizona, near the campuses of the University of Arizona and Pima Community College. Our program is designed to help young adults overcome addiction, build foundational life skills, and pursue their educational and career goals. Contact us today for more information.