How to Stay Sober in College

February 18, 2020

Drinking has always been part of campus life. According to the National Institutes of Health, 60 percent of college students said they drank in the past month and two-thirds of those reported binge drinking. Studies show that, on average, college students drink more than their peers who are not attending college. Consequently, attending college can be especially challenging for people recovering from substance use issues. If you’re attending college in recovery, here are some tips to help you stay sober and have a great college experience.

Stay Near Your Support System

Attend college near your support system. Either commute from wherever you live now or choose a college that allows you to go home frequently. Much of the stress of starting college is associated with being in an unfamiliar place where you don’t know anyone. Attending a college that allows for frequent visits home means that you can still enjoy the benefits of your existing social support system. This reduces stress and increases feelings of connection. If it’s not possible to stay close to home for whatever reason, make sure to stay in frequent contact with your support network. You don’t want your family and loved ones to be wondering if maybe the reason they haven’t heard from you lately is that you’ve relapsed. More importantly, consistent communication with those that support your recovery will greatly increase your chances of maintaining long-term sobriety.

Figure out a Sober Living Arrangement

If you do have to move, look for a sober living situation. Most colleges and universities have alcohol-free dorms and many prohibit alcohol on campus entirely. Enforcement of these rules may be lenient, but it’s at least enough to keep the drinking behind closed doors, making it easier to avoid. A bigger concern is whether your roommate drinks. Typically, colleges and universities will let you choose your roommate. Consider seeking out a sober friend and requesting to room together. The residence life office might be able to help you find a sober roommate if you explain your situation to them. Additionally, there are sites like that can help you find someone.

If you decide to live off-campus, avoid areas mostly populated by students. You will probably find yourself surrounded by parties at least three days out of the week. Consider two other options instead. First, many larger universities have family housing, which is typically both affordable and quiet. Areas like these are often populated by graduate and international students demonstrating less interest in partying. Another option is to live among the locals, away from the student areas entirely. 

Stick to Your Recovery Plan

Going to college full-time is a big change, especially if you’re away from home. You will probably find yourself extremely busy with classes and activities. Nevertheless, your recovery has to come first. Prioritizing your recovery plan is crucial. Find 12-step meetings you can attend. Seek out a local therapist. Keep up with all the parts of your plan, even if you feel like you don’t have time. Remember that your recovery strategy is designed to help you cope with challenging emotions, which will also improve your academic performance. 

Manage Your Schedule

A big part of staying sober is managing your stress, which is a major trigger for many people. Numerous stress management techniques exist. A great starting point is to manage your schedule. First-year students are often surprised by the college workload. Many classes require you to attend lectures, labs, and discussion sections, as well as studying on your own. Don’t get too ambitious during your first year. Taking the required classes will probably be plenty to keep you busy. Once you know which classes you will be taking, practice scheduling out your weeks. Spend an hour or two each Sunday to think about the upcoming week. Consider the time you will need to complete the necessary assignments and study for exams. Plan out your schedule accordingly and stick to it. Don’t forget to plan for rest and relaxation, as well as time for you and fun with your friends.

Keep up With Your Self-Care

Three of the most important aspects of self-care–a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and regular exercise–often go totally out the window during college. This is especially true during crunch time at the end of the semester. Unfortunately, when you cut corners on self-care, you risk your recovery, your health, and your grades. For example, running even a mild sleep deficit for a few nights in a row can cause significant cognitive impairment. Pulling an all-nighter impairs attention, working memory, and long-term memory. This can take a while to recover from, not to mention it increases your anxiety and reduces your performance on tests. You’ll probably get more academic benefits from a good night’s sleep than from cramming all night for your exam. Prioritizing self-care goes a long way to support your recovery and your life in general. 

Use Campus Services

Most campuses offer a variety of services that every student pays for but few students use. These include health services, counseling services, and tutoring services. Making use of these services can save you a lot of trouble. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or having some mental health issues, make an appointment with counseling services. Options like these can be especially helpful if you haven’t found a new therapist or you can’t get in to see your regular therapist. If you’re having trouble in class, find a tutor sooner rather than later. College is stressful and it’s OK to ask for help.

Get Involved in Campus Activities

Much of campus social life involves drinking but there’s plenty that doesn’t. One way to have fun and make friends outside of the party scene is to get involved in campus activities. There are student organizations, clubs for pretty much every interest, political groups, recreational sports groups, and plenty of other things to get involved with. Engaging in these activities can keep you busy, help you relax, and allow you to meet people who share your interests. Most importantly, university-sanctioned activities typically don’t involve alcohol. 

Need Support?

It’s important to keep in mind that if 60 percent of college students drink, that means 40 percent don’t. If you prioritize your recovery and focus on your classwork, you shouldn’t have much trouble having a great college experience while staying sober. At Steps Recovery Centers, we aim to support our alumni in any way necessary to keep them sober in the long run. We know that life goes on after treatment, and our alumni encounter many new experiences and challenges. We are committed to helping you continue to grow in your recovery long after you graduate from our program. To learn more about our alumni services, call us at 385-236-0931.

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