Why College Kids Drink Too Much

By Thomas Vander Ven 04/05/11
Hangovers can be managed through a variety of methods, especially when you're in school and responsibilities are minimal. But the emotional repercussions of college drinking aren't as easy to dismiss.
Boozing like Bluto Photo via

Adult alcoholics are forced to combat their post-intoxication experience in a dreadful sort of self-imposed, solitary confinement. Justifying their drinking behaviors and the family neglect and mistreatment that accompanied their illness is no easy task.

But most college drinkers live in a different social world. Certainly, heavy drinking university students have the unique task of hiding their unlawful drinking and intoxication from a host of university officials and law enforcement agents. They are not likely, however, to have the same role responsibilities as adult drinkers do. In fact, many college drinkers live in a community of fellow drinkers who often support them through their morning-after hangovers and regrets. Furthermore, the college drinking scene is partly facilitated by a culture that offers easy forgiveness for the missteps of inebriated students. Unlike John Cheever—who wrote about how he had to comfort his weeping son—and Pete Hamill, who wrote about how he recognized that his drinking caused him to neglect his family, the college drinker often operates within a culture that not only accepts heavy drinking and hammered misbehavior, but readily excuses objectionable conduct and sometimes even celebrates it. Armed with the knowledge that he or she will be forgiven for his or her drunken trespasses, the college drinker is not likely to desist after delivering a mean-spirited or otherwise socially objectionable public performance. Thus drunken misbehavior is often processed through the social filter of the college drinking scene in ways that hold drinkers less accountable for their actions. One of the skills that a heavy drinker learns to develop is the ability to treat or otherwise manage an alcohol hangover. The hangover—an objective indicator of the damage of heavy drinking—is sometimes redefined in tolerable ways within the college drinking scene. 

Hung-over Europeans in the Middle Ages favored the consumption of raw eel and bitter almonds to fight post-intoxication illness. Drunken Mongolians ate pickled sheep’s eyes, and unsteady Chinese drinkers used green tea.

Charles Herman, a heavy-drinking character in the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind, said this about post-intoxication illness: “Did you know that having a hangover is not having enough water in your body to run your Krebs cycles, which is exactly what happens to you when you are dying of thirst? So dying of thirst would probably feel pretty much like the hangover that finally bloody kills you.” The Krebs cycles involve a series of chemical reactions that are essential for the human body to metabolize glucose and other simple sugars. Thus, the dehydration produced by alcohol consumption prevents the body from removing toxins from the body due to an insufficient supply of water. The extreme ingestion of alcohol does, indeed, result in dehydration as well as other biochemical effects. According to alcohol researcher Christopher Martin, the nausea and dizziness experienced during an alcohol hangover may be related to a phenomenon known as Positional Alcohol Nystagmus II (PAN II). PAN II—usually occurring between five and ten hours after the ingestion of alcohol—involves the body’s elimination of alcohol from its system. As alcohol in the semicircular canals is removed faster than the fluid that surrounds it, it disrupts the body’s balance, which is controlled in part by the semicircular canals. This disruption contributes to the feelings of vertigo and nausea often experienced during a hangover.

Scholars who study the physiological effects of alcohol intoxication define a hangover as a condition “characterized by the constellation of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms that occur after a bout of heavy alcohol drinking.” These symptoms typically include fatigue, headache, increased sensitivity to light and sound, muscular pain, and extreme thirst. Feeling sick, incredibly parched, or inordinately tired after a night of heavy drinking, then, is an obvious sign of an alcohol hangover. It does not take a medical degree to recognize the physical effects of alcohol withdrawal. And if these symptoms are severe enough, one would expect that the sufferer would make future efforts to avoid the behaviors that produced the illness just as the food poisoning victim might avoid for life the food that caused him or her violent nausea. But, according to many of my respondents, defining and adapting to the alcohol hangover is more complicated than this. Although many of my sample respondents reported that they suffered a hangover after their most recent intoxication, very few of these subjects stated that they had desisted from alcohol abuse as a result of their post-intoxication maladies.

Across many cultures of the world, there is a long history of unlikely concoctions designed to give the tortured victim of a hangover some comfort. According to a Time magazine essay on the history of hangover cures, the ancient Assyrians treated their rotting stomachs and pounding heads with a combination of ground birds’ beaks and myrrh. And hung-over Europeans in the Middle Ages favored the consumption of raw eel and bitter almonds to fight post-intoxication illness. Drunken Mongolians ate pickled sheep’s eyes, and unsteady Chinese drinkers used green tea to combat the effects of intoxication.

A considerably less complicated folk remedy than those detailed above is the use of more alcohol to treat the effects of an alcohol hangover. Known as drinking a bit of the “hair of the dog that bit you,” using alcohol to cure the negative after-effects of alcohol seems to be a temporary solution that may generate a self-perpetuating problem. Drinking to avoid a hangover may be temporarily effective simply because it delays the inevitable symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. While respondents sometimes claimed to use the “hair of the dog” technique, more often than not they treated hangovers with some combination of sleep, water, and pain relievers. 

Having a hangover is not against the law, but drinking yourself into a lethargic, sickly mess has the potential to generate guilt and self-disappointment. The most proximate victim of a hangover is the hangover sufferer him or herself. Moreover, drunkenness itself is a victimless offense unless it is considered as self-harm (i.e., bodily harm, damage to one’s life chances) or a threat to the functioning of the social order. The popular conception of the “problem drinker” points to someone who has allowed his or her drinking to get in the way of his or her social institutional obligations. The “problem drinker” has imported his or her addiction into the home or into the workplace. By this definition, most college drinkers are unlikely to define their heavy drinking as “problematic” since it is not clear that it interferes with their “straight” life. According to many of my respondents, a hangover is seen as easily justifiable and quite innocuous since it does not interfere with any of their institutional demands. University students may be in a particularly good structural position to deny the injury of a hangover since, in many cases, going to class is their only formal responsibility and, furthermore, classroom expectations of the student may be minimal at best. This may help to partly explain the high levels of heavy alcohol drinking on our nation’s college campuses since emerging adults at universities may have relatively few formal obligations. The college student who lives away from home has a reduced direct bond to his or her family and, though it varies according to how seriously a student takes his or her education, the university student may have minimal obligation to university activities.

Hangovers may be relatively easy to brush off. The passage of time may be the best remedy for a hangover, and the clock never stops ticking. But the psychic pains that heavy drinkers sometimes face on the morning after a drinking episode may not be so easily discharged. While pulsating headaches fade away and ravenous thirst can eventually be quenched, it is more difficult to wash away the overwhelming regrets related to engaging in risky or unprotected sex, behaving in ways that destroyed a valued relationship, or acting foolishly or out of character in public. Regrets linger. 

Excerpted from Getting Wasted: Why College Students Drink Too Much and Party So Hard by Thomas Vander Ven with permission by the publisher. Thomas Vander Ven is an associate professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Ohio University and the author of Working Mothers and Juvenile Delinquency.

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