By Jacquelyn Thorp

Introduction: Importance to College Students

The topic of addictions is very important and pertinent to college students because college can oftentimes be a time of extreme stress. Many college students can feel overwhelmed with trying to juggle classes and the workload they require, extracurricular activities, and finding time to socialize. This increases the need or want to unwind a little, and can often include going out to drink with friends or engaging in drug use. Alcohol consumption especially is a common issue on college campuses, and it can get out of control and lead to an alcohol addiction if not done responsibly. College is also a time where many social changes are taking place, especially for freshmen. Many are adjusting to being away from home, finding a group of friends, and adjusting to college life in general. Changes in our lives can be confusing and stressful, which in turn can lead to depending on other things to get us through the day and deal with this stress. As a college freshman student myself, I think that it is important for me to be aware of the risks and educate myself. Addictions can often be formed when our lives seem to be out of control, and it becomes a way for us to cope. Being exposed to these risks, college students need to be aware of when a habit can start to become an unhealthy addiction.


Drinking in college can become out of hand.
Drinking in college can become out of hand.

I. Background Information
II. Stages of Addiction
III. Effects on an Addict
IV. Psychological/Biological Aspects
V. Common Addictions
VI. Case Studies
VII. College Students and Addiction
VIII. How to Recognize and Addiction
IX. How to Help an Addict
X. Recent News
XI. Conclusion
XII. Sources

I. Background Information

An addiction is when an individual cannot control the impulse to indulge in addictive substances despite negative effects and consequences. It is a chronic brain disease that causes alterations in the brain that affects how they respond to different stressors. Addiction is considered a mental illness, and it is considered to be caused by a series of events over time, rather than by a single event. Addiction is also considered to be a cycle, which means that the chronic use of drugs, alcohol, other similar substances, or even certain activities can lead to both periods of abstinence and relapse. There are many psychological and biological conditions that can lead to the beginning of an addiction. For example if one is already suffering from a previously existing condition such as anxiety or depression, the use of an addictive substance to temporarily relieve the pain or remove themselves from reality is very common. Continuous use of these addictive substances to cope can lead to dependence. Stressful life events can also cause people to seek out temporary relief. Being physically or sexually abused, going through a divorce, or experiencing the death of a loved one are all plausible stresses that may lead to an addiction. Continuous stress can also be the cause of relapse in addiction patients. Addicts are drawn to the effects of the substance and what it does for them rather than the substance itself.

What is an Addiction? For a basic overview of addiction, follow this link:

II. Stages Leading to an Addiction

The stages leading to an addiction are not exactly the same for everyone. There are many factors that can change the stages in which a person goes through an addiction. It can also depend on what exactly they are addicted to. However, there are three general stages that people go through when they become addicted to a substance, action, etc.
1. Compulsion Stage: A person receives an impulse through various methods to seek out the substance and use it.
The cycle of addiction can vary and change throughout the course of an addiction.
The cycle of addiction can vary and change throughout the course of an addiction.

2. Loss of Control Stage: A person starts to lose control over how much they take, how often they take it, and not being able to say no to it.
3. Withdrawal Stage: A person feels negative emotions when the substance is no longer available to them or they are prevented from having it.
4. Continuous Drug Use or Treatment: If a person does not seek any treatment to stop the addiction, the additive effects will continue to increase and put their health into danger. If they choose to try to decrease their addiction, treatment can be used to gradually lessen them off of the substance of addiction
5. Possible Relapse: If one chooses to seek treatment, they may not be able to completely commit to the process and go through relapse- going back to the addicted drug. This may happen several times before a person in completely "cured."

As college students, many are already exposed to many of the stressors shown on the cycle to the left even more than other adults or possibly high school students. It's important for college students to try to keep stress to a minimum when possible (Koob, 2009).

III. Effects on an Addict

  • Mental effects-depression, anxiety, hallucinations, euphoria, altered brain connections
  • Social effects- loss of work, economic instability, strained relationships
  • Short term effects- stimulation, excitement, lowered inhibitions
  • Long term effects- memory problems, suicide, overdose, brain damage, high blood pressure, cancer

Grades often suffer due to addiction issues, and it can often be one of the most noticeable effects in college students. Behavioral effects, especially among your closest friends, can also be seen. (Ciccarelli 2013).

IV. Psychological and Biological Aspects

Because the stages of addiction are gradual, the biological changes in the brain also happen gradually. The brain's reward system is very important when investigating an addiction. The positive reinforcement of many drugs for example creates a sense of euphoria for the user which directly affects the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system of the brain. The basal forebrain and the amygdala have also been connected with psychostimulant rewards. As the neural circuits of these systems is altered because of the substance being used, the neurotransmitters are also being altered in the brain. They evolve as the stages of addiction progress. Eventually the consistent disruption of these neural circuits causes the positive reinforcement of the euphoria to be replaced with negative reinforcement. The negative reinforcement is part of the withdrawal stage in which the person only takes the substance because their body cannot seem to function without it. This is also called dependence. Such changes can effect neurochemical levels in the brain of certain hormones such as dopamine and seratonin. Normally, chemicals released in the brain can bind to a receptor and then travel through the neural system. Artificial substances that have been ingested by the body imitate this same process and can also bind to receptors.
The levels of dopamine and serotonin can affect people with an addiction.
The levels of dopamine and serotonin can affect people with an addiction.
Scientists have also discovered that some people may be predisposed to the effects of certain addictions, usually drugs or alcohol. Sometimes there are certain mutations in our genes that can be passed on for generations. These mutations usually do not exhibit adverse effects, but they may make the individual more susceptible to become addicted than others. It may make them more sensitive to the drug they are using. Transcription factors are also being looked at because they help control whether certain genes are turned on or off. This also leads to research in signal transduction (when cells release a signal and causes the body to respond to said signal). This research allows scientists to see how the body adapts to such signals during the dependence stage of an addiction.

In regards to drug and alcohol addiction, college students should at least be aware of what is happening inside their body and brain. Its harder to understand what is going on when they can't physically see it happening, but understanding and having this knowledge can at least increase awareness of how they actually could become addicted if they do not take precaution and control (Koob 2009).

V. Common addictions

  • Smoking- Nicotine is the primary ingredient that makes cigarettes very addictive; it releases dopamine in the system (Cleck, 2008).
  • Drugs- Stimulants, depressants, narcotics, and hallucinogens all affect the nervous system which affects the brain.
  • Stimulants speed up the level of functioning in sympathetic nervous system and/or the central nervous system by increasing the heart rate or brain function. Examples of stimulants are nicotine, cocaine, amphetamines, and even caffeine.
  • Depressants on the other hand, slow down the nervous system and tend to lower inhibitions. Barbiturates, alcohol, and Rohypnol (more commonly known as the "date rape" drug) are all examples of depressants.Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances and people who suffer from alcoholism in the United States can range anywhere from 10-20 million people.
    This graph shows the effects of certain drugs.
    This graph shows the effects of certain drugs.
  • Narcotics include heroin, morphine, and opium. They stimulate the natural endorphins in our system by binding to receptor sites. This also temporarily relieves any pain.
  • Hallucinogens cause the brain to alter it's true perceptions and distort reality. Marijuana is the most commonly abused substance in this category. Other hallucinogens include LSD, MDMA, and Mescaline.

Some of the less common addictions are gambling, sex/pornography, and the Internet. These addictions do not involve a substance entering the body, but they do have an affect on the brain in regards to controlling their impulsive behavior.

When most people think of addictions, including college students, most think of drugs or alcohol. While these addictions seem to be the most common, it's important not to forget that college can also expose them to other behaviors that can become addictions as well (Ciccarelli 2013).

VI. Case studies and research studies

A study was conducted in Finland to survey how people perceived certain addictions and how dangerous they are to society. Researchers wanted to know which kinds of addictions the people of the general public, treatment professionals, and their clients considered to be the most threatening. Previous research has shown that addictions such as alcohol and or drugs have been fairly "popular" addictions, but more recently diagnosed "addictions" like gambling and the Internet are not as widely known. Because of this open-ended or hazy boundary between what is considered an addiction and what is not, it made it a perfect opportunity for researchers to gain the public perspective of such addictions. The research was conducted by surveys and questionnaires and included questions based on alcohol, amphetamines, heroin, cannabis, gambling, prescription drugs, Internet use, and nicotine. The questions asked how great a person was to fall into dependence of the substance and how likely they were to recover from such an addiction. In all three groups that were surveyed, heroin and amphetamines seemed to have the highest risk of dependence. Subsequently, gambling and Internet use seemed to have the lowest. However, the client group seemed to rate smoking, prescription drugs, and alcohol to have a much higher risk of dependence than the general population and the treatment professionals. In addition, smoking and gambling received the highest rate for successful treatment among all three groups and prescription drugs and alcohol received the lowest. Each of these ratings could be influenced by the person's certain life situations, health, and social networks. The results of this study may yield to what groups of people are most at risk for addiction, and what kinds of addictions society should be paying the most attention to. Research similar to the study done in Finland has also been performed across other cultures as well (Kaski-Jannes 2012).

VII. College Students and Addiction

Certain studies have shown that young adults who do go to college after high school seem to have lower drug and alcohol use than their peers who do not go to college. This non-student group also reported to have more cigarette and drug use in adolescence, as well as their young and emerging adulthood. Overall, in both college students and non-students, the rate of use of alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes was higher than their peers that were still in high school. Therefore, the rate of substance use in college students does tend to increase after high school, just maybe not as much as their peer who don't go to college. Both groups are still exposed to the risk of addiction by engaging in this behavior when it cannot be controlled.

Even so, college students are susceptible for substance addiction. The transition to college life can be very stressful, especially for first year students. Making new friends, being away from family and old friends, and taking academically challenging courses are all events in college that can cause an extreme amount of stress- so much stress that other substances can be used as a way to deal with that stress. Other students presume that heavy drinking and higher drug use are simply the norm in college life, making it more acceptable and even encouraged activities. Some even view it as a symbol of maturity, making it much more appealing to college students. Non-college students also experience stresses such as moving out of their parents house, but less research has been done on the effects of their continued or newly started substance use.
This chart shows the alcohol use in a sample of 18-20 year olds.
This chart shows the alcohol use in a sample of 18-20 year olds.

Heavy or excessive drinking in college is a main focus on many college campuses. Excessive drinking has many consequences such as long term physical well being issues, unplanned pregnancies, and addiction. Most tend to outgrow their heavy drinking after college without any treatment, but some people continue to have problems controlling it. Researchers predicted that problems with heavy drinking in college could lead to problems in drinking even seven years out of college. Nevertheless, there have been studies to show that excessive drinking usually continues to decrease from the first year of college. Also, educational status has proven to be a major predictor in marijuana and cigarette, but not for alcohol. People who finished high school but are not in college tend to have a higher prevalence for drug and cigarette use than their college-bound peers. On the other hand, environment has played a major role in alcohol consumption. College students away from home had more instances of alcohol abuse than those who still lived at home with their parents. Although, some researchers believe that going to college gives students a more "protective effect" of drinking later in life, meaning that they
understand the consequences in adulthood (White 2005).

Overall, the college atmosphere definitely has an affect on becoming addicted to certain substances because of an increase in the use of those substances. The natural stresses of college as well as the change in lifestyle and environment can cause a prevalence for such addictions.

VIII. How to recognize an addiction in yourself or others

The signs of an addiction may not be apparent at first. However, some of the early signs could be a particular attraction to a specific substance or action, spouts of binging, or experimentation. Eventually the person will start to alienate themselves from their family, especially if they are suspicious of the addiction. Addicts will start to surround themselves only with people that support the addiction. They will often disengage themselves from circumstances that will not allow them to partake in their addiction or from those who frown upon it. Many times they will try to hide their addiction from loved ones. It's also important to pay attention to their physical health. Oftentimes with an addiction, addicts can become ill, have an injury, or even neglect simple health care such as hygiene. You also might notice some changes in behavior such as not showing up to work on time, irritability, or mood swings. Mental health issues can also arise with an addiction. If these issues did not seem to be apparent before, then it could be very likely that they have an addiction problem. Other issues may include lower performance in school, strained relationships, tarnished reputation, eviction, citations, or hospitalization. With these consequences comes excuses for their behavior. Instead of admitting that there is a problem, they choose to find excuses for why their behavior is acceptable. The type of addiction may influence the symptoms they show, and it may not be the same for everyone. These are just some of the most common ways to recognize an addiction. It's always a good idea to have a professional actually diagnose an addiction and properly prescribe medication/ treatment.

Being able to recognize such changes in behavior among your college peers is important. Many times college students have to distinguish the fine line between having fun and getting out of control. If someone does start to get out of control, recognizing these signs can help them get help sooner or prevent them from doing even more damage to themselves than they already have (Tyler 2011).

IX. How to help an addict and what resources are available

It's important to know that there is not one simple solution to treat an addiction. It is often a combination of treatments and changes to one's life. Also, addicts may not be willing to accept any treatment or deny that they have a problem. If they do decide to seek out help, these methods are some of the ways that they can be helped.

  • Drug Therapies/medication- There are many medical treatments available for addicts. Some are effective by restoring certain hormone levels in the brain. Others operate by blocking receptors to ease the symptoms of withdrawal. Antidepressants are also used to treat both symptoms of depression and addiction at the same time since they oftentimes go hand in hand. Other drugs act on stress inducing factors and try to reduce them. Treatments meant to help alcoholics attempts to lower the tolerance level of an individual (Cleck, 2008).
  • Behavioral changes - Lifestyle changes can help one recover from an addiction. Surrounding the addict with a positive support system can help them recover. Any stressful behavior that can be reasonably removed will reduce the chance of relapse
  • Social Support groups- The people that an addict surrounds themselves with can also be a factor in recovery. Support groups are available to help one cope with this disease (Leshner 1999).
  • Positive types of intervention are usually the most helpful when it comes to addictions. Exercises that enhance positive thinking about one's life and accomplishments helps alleviate depression symptoms that can sometimes be associated with certain types of addictions. Promoting kindness, generosity, and mindfulness can encourage a helpful recovery (White 2005).

Many college campuses have counseling for free or for a low price. RA's and other staff can also lead you in the right direction if you or someone you know has an addiction.

Drinking problem? If you are unsure whether you or someone close to you has a drinking problem, try an easy online assessment at

X. Recent news

Producing more effective treatments that are approved by the FDA are now currently in the making. As of now there is no approved medication for cocaine addicts.
Scientists are also spending more time at researching the signaling pathways that are altered in the process of an addictions (Cleck, 2008).

XI. Conclusion

Addiction is a serious issue for many people, and it can especially be a problem for college students. There are many effects as a result of an addiction, both short and long term. The body and the mind can take a heavy toll if not treated carefully. Fortunately there are many effective treatments available, and more treatments are being tested and developed as well. By having a greater understanding of how addictions work and develop, college students can become aware of their own habits and the habits of their friends. Hopefully this issue has been addressed on all college campuses.

XII. Sources

Cleck, Jessica N. and Blendy, Julie A. (2008). Making a Bad Thing Worse: Adverse Effects of Stress on Drug Addiction. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 118.2, 254-261. Retreived from

Ciccarelli, Saundra K. and White, Noland J. (2013). Psychology. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

Koob, George F. and Simon, Eric J. (2009). The Neurobiology of Addiction: Where We Have Been and Where We Are Going. Journal of Drug Issues, 39.1,115-132. Retrieved from

Koski-Jännes, Anja. (2012). Population, Professional and Client Views on the Dangerousness of Addictions: Testing the Familiarity Hypothesis. Nordic Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 29.2, 139-154. Retrieved from

Krentzman, Amy R. (2013, March). Review of the application of positive psychology to substance use, addiction, and recovery research. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 27(1), 151-165. Retreived from

Leshner, Alan I. (1999). We Can Conquer Drug Addiction. The Futurist, 33.9, 22-25. Retrieved from

Tyler, Mara. (2011, July 20). Recognizing an Addiction. Retrieved from

White, Helene R. and Lebouvie, Erich W. (2005). Changes in Substance Use in the Transition to Adulthood: A Comparison of College Students and Their Noncollege Peers. Journal of Drug Issues, 35.2, 281-305. Retreived from