How to Stay Sober and Drug-Free in College

Drug addiction is a chronic and progressive illness that often requires long-term maintenance and management—recovery does not end after completing an addiction treatment program. Because many addicted people will relapse at least once following treatment, it is important that you have proper aftercare and relapse prevention strategies in place to help maintain sobriety.1

Staying sober outside the treatment environment is challenging enough on its own, but may be even more so for a college student. College is a time when many young people choose to socialize by partying and engaging in alcohol or drug use. This can make it especially difficult for a recovering person to be socially active and avoid relapse.

young adult near graffiti wall According to research conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), substance use disorder rates nearly triple from adolescence to young adulthood, from 7% of adolescents aged 12 to 17, to 20% of young adults aged 18 to 25. Relapse rates are also high for youth, with more than 90% of young people returning for treatment within 5 years.1

Recovering college students face many unique challenges and stressors that compound the normal difficulties associated with addiction recovery. Such stressors include academic performance pressures, peer substance use, and being away from their home and support system. And while youth aftercare programs exist to promote relapse prevention strategies, relatively few from this age group take advantage of them—only 33% of young people receive professional aftercare.1

While college does come with some added stressors and triggers for a person in recovery, this does not mean that you should avoid going to school. College is an important and valuable investment in your future, and many employers require a college education. For many people, choosing to attend college is actually a positive step forward on their path to recovery.

That being said, it is important for you have a concrete plan for coping with stressors and triggers before the academic year begins to help prevent relapse throughout your college career.

Making a Plan to Stay Sober and Drug-Free

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Preparation is an important aspect of relapse prevention. If you know the situations that will likely challenge your sobriety, you can have a plan in place to help you make the best choice for your recovery when that time comes. Some situations that could challenge your sobriety might include:

  • College parties or similar social events: It is no secret that many college parties involve alcohol and other drug use. It can be difficult for many recovering students to remain sober in a party environment.

The pressure to perform well academically can cause a lot of stress for many college students. This stress may lead you to relapse since you are used to using drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with stress.

What you can do: Choosing sobriety doesn’t necessarily mean you have to completely avoid college parties, football games, and other social events. But if you choose to attend, know that you will likely be triggered to use, so have a solid plan in place. Consider bringing a sober friend who is committed to staying sober with you. You may also want to bring a non-alcoholic beverage with you so you can have a drink in hand and will not feel as isolated from the others.

Consider the alternative: If you feel that college parties will be too triggering for you, don’t go. It is not worth your sobriety. Seek out sober college activities instead (see the list below).

  • Living on campus: Living on campus can also be challenging when you’re in recovery for a number of reasons. First, many students who live on campus are attending college in a place away from their home and primary support system, which alone can be very triggering. Second, alcohol and drug use often takes place in college dormitories and in sorority and fraternity houses, making the temptation to use even greater.

What you can do: If you live on campus, consider having a single room or attempt to find a roommate who also practices a sober lifestyle. Avoid joining a sorority or fraternity, since these organizations frequently have parties where alcohol and drug use are present. Many colleges and universities now offer sober dormitories as a result of the growing opioid abuse epidemic. Consider choosing one of these schools if possible. If you must live away from home, try to make plans to go home and visit regularly and have routine phone calls with loved ones for support.

Consider the alternative: You may also choose to live off campus. Living off campus can give you greater control over your living environment so you can encounter fewer triggers for relapse. Many college students in recovery may choose to attend community college rather than a university, or stay in their hometown and attend a local college or university when possible.

  • Academic stress: The pressure to perform well academically can cause a lot of stress for many college students. This stress may lead you to relapse since you are used to using drugs or alcohol as a means of coping with stress. Or maybe this would tempt you to use stimulant medications to help you stay up late to study and improve your academic performance on exams or term papers.  

college student stressed out in hallway

What you can do: Academic stress is a part of the college experience that will not go away. It is natural to want to do well in school and feel stress about upcoming exams that can affect your grades. Rather than try to avoid stress or repress it with drugs or alcohol, find a healthy way to cope with it. Consider exercise, massage, taking a hot bath, or outdoor activities, such as going for a brisk walk. You may also think about joining a study group to help you feel more prepared for exams. Use your anxiety about an upcoming test to propel you forward rather than hold you back.

Consider the alternative: If academic challenges bring about a significant amount of stress for you, you may want to consider going to college part-time rather than full-time. Having a smaller course load can help eliminate some of your stress by giving you more time to focus on your coursework in each class. Research has indicated that part-time students drink slightly less than full-time students. According to a survey conducted by SAMHSA, approximately 4% more full-time students reported drinking in the last 30 days than part-time college students. Full-time students also reported drinking an average of 4.1 drinks per day, whereas part-time students only drank an average of 3.8 per day.2

  • Boredom: College life can be filled with a lot of downtime for those who do not work outside of school or participate in extracurricular activities. Many people relapse out of boredom since they are more likely to think about drug or alcohol use and dwell on any cravings they may have.

What you can do: In the short term, avoid letting yourself become bored during college. Find something to fill your time. Consider getting a part-time job, volunteering, or engaging in extracurricular activities. In the long term, work on learning to tolerate boredom well with your individual therapist, since this is a life skill that will serve you your entire life.

  • Dating and Relationships: Dating can also cause added stress and trigger you to relapse during college. You may be on a date at a restaurant and feel tempted to order a drink to fit in. Or you might feel uncomfortable mentioning that you are in recovery on a first or second date, so it can be tempting to order a drink and think it won’t cause you to relapse into full-blown abuse or addiction. Intimate relationships may also trigger you to relapse when you have conflict with your significant other or when the relationship ends in a painful breakup.

What you can do: Learn to speak up about your recovery right away. Rather than be ashamed of it, be proud of your accomplishments. It is important that your significant other understands and supports your continued recovery and the unique challenges that you face. Be open and honest and you’ll likely find that most people are respectful and supportive. And for those who aren’t, ask yourself if they are worth dating.

Have a Friend in Your Corner

Recovery isn’t something you should attempt to maintain on your own. Humans are a social species; having a supportive and caring friend to lean on during difficult times can do wonders for the soul.

Attending college will bring up many stressors and triggers for you to use. Consider recruiting a friend or sponsor who can support you during situations where you feel triggered to use drugs or drink alcohol. You can choose any friend whom you think would provide a solid support system for you. Many recovering people choose to have an official sponsor designated for their continued recovery support.

Whether it’s a friend or a sponsor, having someone in your corner can help you stay sober in challenging situations by:

  • Attending a party with you as your sober buddy. This way, you won’t be the only one abstaining and your friend can encourage you to stand by your choice throughout the duration of the event.
  • Being available for you to call or text when you feel triggered. Sometimes, we just need to talk it out, and having a person with a supportive ear you can call on at any time can be a lifesaver.
  • Becoming a recovery sponsor. Obtaining a sponsor from your recovery peers through support programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can prove extra helpful, since these people are also in recovery and can provide wisdom and empathy to address any challenges you face.

Alternative Activities to Drugs and Alcohol in College

At first glance, it may appear that all college activities involve some form of alcohol or drug use. But this is certainly not the case. While each college is unique, and the available activities may vary, there are a number of alternatives to drugs and alcohol during college. Some activities you may want to consider include:

  • On-campus clubs and extracurricular activities: Check with your school to find out what clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities might be available for you to join. Some examples include theatre, foreign language groups, academic teams, student government, hiking clubs, art club, band, and sports teams.
  • Volunteering: Consider volunteering at a local organization or at the college itself to help you fill up your free time and find fulfillment by giving back to your community. You could volunteer at the local animal shelter and receive free dog and cat cuddles, or volunteer at a nursing home and bring joy to the lives of lonely elderly people.
  • Going to the movies, seeing a play, or attending a concert: These are just a few examples of the many potential recreational activities in your community that you could attend with friends that do not involve alcohol or drugs.
  • Finding a hobby that genuinely interests you and pursue it: Finding something you’re passionate about is an excellent protection against relapse. If you aren’t sure where your passion lies, explore many possibilities until you find it. Some examples include playing an instrument, painting, drawing, writing poetry, making arts and crafts, gaming, swimming, hiking, biking, dancing, and playing chess.
  • Taking a recreational course: Many colleges and universities offer recreational courses and specialized trips for students. Some examples include backpacking and camping, specialized dance classes, kayaking, pottery, and yoga.
  • Part-time job or internship: Not only will a part-time job or internship keep you occupied, but it can help you gain valuable experience during college and may benefit your wallet as well.

More tips for staying sober during college:

  • Attend support groups and 12-step meetings regularly.
  • Visit your university’s counseling center for support.
  • Observe a healthy, balanced diet to maintain your physical and mental health.
  • Exercise regularly to help manage stress and stay healthy.
  • Engage in a spiritual practice (meditation, prayer, yoga, attending church, etc.).

If you are a college student who is struggling to maintain sobriety, there are recovery options available for you. To learn about substance treatment programs in your area, call our recovery hotline at 1-888-287-0471 .

Sources

  1. Laudet, A., Harris, K., et al. (2014). Collegiate Recovery Communities Programs: What do we know and what do we need to know? Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 14(1): 84–100.
  2. Lipari, R. & Jean-Francois, B. (2016). A Day in the Life of College Students Aged 18 to 22: Substance Use Facts. SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health: The CBHSQ Report.
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