Perfectionism, stress, the fear of failure. With all the pressures of society coming down on today’s youth, it’s no wonder why binge drinking is on the rise.
A recent post in the New York Times outlined what, I agree, has become a prevalent epidemic among young adults: binge drinking. It’s often hard to discern when drinking has crossed the line from recreation to problem behavior, but if you’re concerned you’re falling into a binge drinking pattern it may be time for a closer look.
“Alcoholic” is one of the most misunderstood words in our language. Many people struggle to know, “Am I an alcoholic?” or “Does binge drinking mean I have a problem?” Binge drinking is on the rise almost across the board, but particularly among older adults and women. It continues to be an epidemic-level trend among young adults as well.
To understand if and how you need to curb your drinking patterns, it’s important to first look at where this trend is stemming from. What are we really seeking when we binge drink?
A close friend of mine, a successful businessman, would tell me, “I haven’t had a drop in six months,” and it was true. He would go in cycles—losing weight, getting into shape, repairing his relationship with his wife and young children. While he enjoyed a successful job, it was high-pressure, and he would spend months letting the pressures build.
Then the summer season would roll around and he would go back to drinking. Suddenly his life would blow up. He was impatient with his children; his marriage would fall apart. He would work hard at the office but come home to a mess. Then he’d quit again and do damage control. While this isn’t the stereotypical idea of an alcoholic, it certainly is alcohol abuse. This cycle compromised his health, the quality of his relationships, and more.
Many people think an alcoholic is regularly falling down drunk, blacking out, and driving under the influence. While it’s true that these actions indicate alcoholism, there are many hidden behaviors that also indicate a problem with alcohol.
Binge drinking has become more and more pervasive especially amongst college students and young professionals. There’s a two-fold mentality at play when we see this type of binge drinking: there’s a work hard/play hard attitude they’re embracing, along with the idea of indulging now and paying later.
When someone works hard or studies hard all week, they may see alcohol as a way to unwind, loosen up, and have fun on the weekends. Most of these drinkers wouldn’t see this as having a problem with alcohol—after all, they’re not drinking during the week—but the toll on their mental and physical health is the same.
Students and young adults may make poor choices when they’re drinking. They engage in risky behavior and put themselves in perilous situations because their judgment is impaired. Just as alcohol takes down your inhibitions (largely driven by our fear), it also takes away our ability to make clear decisions and to take future results into account.
When drinking we may like the way our fear response is lowered. After all, feeling brave enough to say and do what we feel seems empowering and freeing, right? What binge drinkers are failing to recognize is that fear isn’t a negative emotion. In fact, there are no negative or “bad” emotions. Fear, along with anger, sadness, joy, and hurt are simply part of our natural emotional makeup as human beings.
In the caveman days, fear was there to protect us and keep us safe. Experiencing fear when we were faced with a saber-toothed tiger could mean the difference between life or death. An appropriate fear response gave us the adrenaline we needed to run away or the strength we needed to fight the beast.
Fortunately, today, we aren’t faced with as many extreme survival situations, so we see fear as a pain in the ass rather than a healthy emotional indicator. Instead of exploring our fear and allowing ourselves to experience it, question it, and address it in a healthy manner, we try to numb it away. One of those numbing methods is with alcohol.
We speak a lot about soft addictions, and it’s true, we may turn to our soft addictions—television, shopping, social media, work, food, and even exercise—as a way to avoid our emotions. Soft addictions zone us out and distract us from our path.
Alcohol, on the other hand, is a hard addiction, but one that’s often sought for the same result. We aren’t comfortable with what we’re feeling; we’re stressed out, we feel inadequate, we feel shy, so we turn to the bottle to give us liquid courage.
What happens with binge drinking is that the after-effects result in exactly the opposite outcome. We wake up hungover, feeling terrible, piecing together what we did the night before, and feeling an even greater sense of shame and embarrassment.
With society’s focus on perfectionism, it’s no wonder this type of “functional” alcoholism is becoming more and more prevalent. We see this in younger and younger kids because the expectations and stresses on these kids are becoming higher. It’s really no surprise when kids under this much pressure turn to smoking, drinking, and other risky behaviors. They’re focused on their performance (academic, sports, and other pursuits) but they aren’t focused on their emotional growth.
When I was younger, I luckily was smart enough to get good grades without pushing myself to the limit. When I was in high school, I was able to balance my academics with other interests. I got into the college that I wanted to and did the same. I know for others the road was tougher.
I would always look at the top kids in the class and feel lucky I wasn’t them. I saw kids who were driven for the highest grades and were pushed to perfection. What often happened is they were pushed to their brink or breaking point.
As parents, it’s important not to push your kids so hard they fall into this perfectionism trap. Adults decide how they want to live their lives—balancing relationships, activities, hobbies, and a career. As kids, the balance is often tougher.
Instead, teach kids coping mechanisms and encourage a healthier emotional response. Mantra meditation is one option I’ve found highly effective in my own life when it comes to dealing with stress. Learning to meditate regularly helps bring us into the present and focus clearly.
Physical activity for the sake of health and enjoyment is important too. Learning to work out, participate in sports, and stay active. While sports can become their own source of stress and perfectionism, it’s important to build a healthy relationship with physical exercise.
Similarly, as parents, we can help our kids avoid falling into the binge drinking trap, by letting go of the push for perfect academic performance. Yes, a B or C here and there might not put them at the very top of their class, but in the long run, relationships and healthy social connections will serve them much greater than straight A’s. There are plenty of colleges and good schools to get into. It’s more important to have a supportive social network and emotionally healthy relationships to get them through the four years of college and beyond.
Binge drinking is a problem for young adults and college kids because they haven’t made the choice about how they want to live their lives. For some people, these directional questions extend to later in life as well. Do you want to have healthy activities, forge strong relationships, grow, and live a life of fulfillment? It’s never too early (or late) in life to embrace a growth mindset.
Falling into the binge drinking pattern during the young adult years leads us to the same habits in our thirties, forties, and beyond (assuming we don’t succumb to alcoholism completely). The actions we take in our young adult years can put us on a trajectory toward a life of more fulfillment and happiness or send us on a downward spiral that can cause us to waste our life away. Choose to live the life you want. The first step is to start engaging in behaviors that move you toward greater nourishment and personal growth.
For more on nourishment and self-care, please visit the Wright Foundation. We’re excited to announce the availability of many of our courses for download. These courses are at a special introductory price, so don’t miss out!
Dr. Bob Wright is an internationally recognized visionary, educator, program developer, leadership and sales executive, best-selling author and speaker. He is a co-founder of Wright and the Wright Graduate University.
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