Having the drink without the downside

Do you choose to drink alcohol? If so, chances are you’re interested in figuring out how to get alcohol’s buzz (feeling chatty, relaxed, and socially connected) while avoiding its negative effects (feeling tired, sick, embarrassed, and all set to fail Monday’s test).

You may have noticed that once you’ve passed the euphoric stage of drinking, and started to slump, consuming more alcohol does not bring back the buzz. This is always the case (science has figured out why, but that’s another story).

This guide is about how to get the effects of alcohol that you want without ending up with its baggage too. A key skill is knowing how to take care of yourself while still being part of the party. Here, we outline seven realistic ways to do this.

Note: Our emphasis is on realistic. Most of you are using some of these strategies already, a large national survey shows. To find out how to make this easier, while expanding your options for having fun and staying in control, keep reading. These strategies are especially important when you’re new to college, new to drinking, or both. (The minimum legal age for consuming alcohol in the US is 21.)

First things first: Be confident in your choice to drink mindfully

Alcohol seems (and is) part of the social culture on many campuses. But over and over, studies show that students perceive alcohol use among their peers to be far more common and frequent than it really is.“Most people drink responsibly or not at all, but don’t boast about that, so they may think they’re the only ones.” —Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, former senior director of initiatives and training, The BACCHUS Network (national association of peer education initiatives addressing alcohol use at US colleges)Here’s what undergrads think their peers are drinking, compared to how much undergrads report they are actually drinking:Alcohol use among undergraduates graphSource: National College Health Assessment, Fall 2015; 19,800 respondents, anonymous and randomized

7 ways to get what you want from alcohol:

1 Make a plan in advance

Planning what you’ll drink through the evening is key to staying in control. “You may deviate from your plan a little. It still helps lower your risk.” —Joan Masters, substance abuse prevention provider, University of MissouriConsider:

  • What you will drink
  • How many alcoholic drinks you will have
  • How you will pace those drinks through the event
  • Whether or not you will have access to the drink of your choice

To figure out what works for you, see Know what you can drink—at what pace later in this slideshow.

Part of planning is anticipating whether you will have control over your own alcohol choices. For example, if jungle juice or mystery punch is all that’s available, the healthiest choice is not to drink or to bring your own.Plan: Take own beer, 4 beers total, 1 beer/hr Alternate w. non-alc, —refill can (water & lime)

2  Set your limits up front

Let your friends know that you’re looking forward to hanging out with them and that you’re choosing to not overdo it. Can’t afford a late penalty for your assignment or a missed team practice? Your friends will get it.Person 1: I’m training tomorrow—tonight I’m all about the seltzer. Person 2: So much to get done the next few days. I’m stopping at two drinks this evening.

3 Tag team with a friend

You’re not the only one who wants to be in control when you go out. Tag team with a friend, help each other out, and celebrate the people who step in and let you know when you’ve had enough.“This is the effect of alcohol myopia: The more we drink, the more we attend to impelling cues (like the person urging you to play beer pong) and the less we attend to inhibiting cues (like the test you have to study for tomorrow). When you tag team, you can change that.” —Ryan Travia, associate dean of students for wellness, Babson College, Massachusetts

Person 1: A glass of wine every hour, up to three glasses. Person 2: Then I’ll cut you off. If I look like I’m up for a shot, stage an intervention.

4  Alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic drinks

We feel more comfortable when we have a cup in our hand, whether or not that cup contains alcohol, studies show.“In reality, we deal with peer pressure throughout our whole lives. I once had a professor tell me he carried around the same can of beer all night at faculty parties and just filled it with water so no one would push him to drink more.” —Dr. Ann Quinn-Zobeck, The BACCHUS Network

  • If you usually have eight alcoholic drinks and you want to cut that to four, you can still have eight drinks: alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages.
  • No one has to know what is in your cup or can: Refilling your beer can with water or juice keeps others from worrying that you haven’t had enough to drink or aren’t having fun.
  • Bonus: Add ice to your drinks—studies show you’ll drink more slowly (and the alcohol will be diluted).
  • Caution: Carbonated drinks may be best avoided when you’re drinking alcohol; carbonation appears to speed up the rate at which alcohol is absorbed into the blood stream, according to researchers. Instead, go for water (add fruit for flavoring), juice, or a sports drink.

Good to know: Studies of the placebo effects related to alcohol show that the chatty, witty persona we associate with drinking is more about our expectations of alcohol than the alcohol itself. In other words, we can be that person without alcohol.

5  Delay the next drink

You can delay your next drink without seeming to reject the person who’s offering it or distancing yourself from the social scene.

When someone offers to get you a drink, show appreciation, and give them a reason to hold off.Person 1: I’m going to the bar—can I get you anything? Response 2: I’m good right now, thanks, but I’ll get the next one. Response 2: Oh, I’ll get it in a few—I’m going to the bathroom first. Response 3: I’m just going to talk to someone and then I’ll go grab one. Response 4: Thanks, I’m all set.

Bonus: This sets you up to get your own drink directly from the bartender—the safest source of alcohol. Here’s why:

  • You’ll know what you’re getting. This is very different from jungle juice or mystery punch, when you have no way of knowing how concentrated the alcohol is. (If you expect punch to be the only alcohol served at a party, bring your own drinks.)
  • You’ll more easily stick to your plan. Bartenders know what a standard serving size looks like—and can also recognize a person who shouldn’t drink any more.
  • You’ll reduce the risk of your drink being spiked. “Date-rape drugs” are tasteless, odorless, colorless, and rapidly dissolving.

6  Show that you’re having a good time

The person offering you a drink wants you to have a good time and include you in the fun. Let them see that you’re enjoying yourself.

Response 1: No thanks, I need my wits tonight. I’m about to join them over there for ping pong. Response 2: I’m taking it easy—I overdid it last time. I’m dying to get my trivia fix. Want to take me on? Response 3: I’m exhausted—the alcohol will race through me. Got a cold Gatorade and an update on what happened at rehearsal?

7 Be thoughtful about drinking games

Drinking games vary in their safety and risk. If you participate, choose wisely.

Be cautious about matching your alcohol intake with someone else’s. When participating in drinking games, we often consume more than we had anticipated, and we drink more quickly than usual. This hikes up the risk of illness, impairment, and regret.“We don’t all process alcohol the same way. For example, women get drunk faster than men on the same amount of alcohol, even if they have the same body weight.” —Dr. Jason Kilmer, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, University of WashingtonConsider adapting drinking games in these ways:

  • Take a sip, not a shot
  • Play all or some rounds with nonalcoholic beverages
  • Take breaks

Know what you can drink—at what pace

Those strategies are helpful in social and professional situations involving alcohol. Being mindful about your alcohol use also means knowing what you typically drink and how your body and mind respond to it. Here’s how to figure that out:

A  Ask yourself three questions:

  • What do I drink?  The amount of alcohol you consume depends partly on what you’re drinking. Alcoholic beverages vary enormously in their alcohol content.
  • What’s my usual serving size?  The amount of alcohol you consume also depends on the shape and size of your glass or cup. A standard serving size is unlikely to be whatever your friend just ladled into that red solo cup.
  • How long will I be out for?  Think about pacing your drinking. If you’ll be out for four hours and you plan to have three alcoholic drinks, you may decide to have one alcoholic drink per hour for the first three hours. Pregaming—drinking before you go out—means you hit “peak buzz” earlier, and your mood declines earlier too.

How to calculate your alcohol intake (Rethinking Drinking: NIAAA)

B  Consult a BAC calculator or chart:

This helps you estimate the amount of drink servings you can consume, and how you should pace them, before your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reaches “peak buzz”. For many people, “peak buzz” is around 0.06 percent BAC. For some, it’s between 0.04 and 0.06.

Predict how you’ll feel through the evening (Yale University)

Estimate your BAC during dinner (Éduc’alcool)

Are you already doing this when you drink?

Almost all college students (98 percent) who responded to a national survey reported that they routinely took one or more smart measures when socializing with alcohol in the past 12 months.

“Most of the time” or “always”
Alternate non-alcoholic with alcoholic beverages 35 percent
Avoid drinking games 37 percent
Choose not to drink alcohol 26 percent
Decide in advance not to exceed a set number of drinks 43 percent
Eat before and/or during drinking 80 percent
Have a friend let you know when you have had enough 44 percent
Keep track of how many drinks being consumed 68 percent
Pace drinks to one or fewer an hour 34 percent
Stay with the same friends the entire time drinking 88 percent
Stick with only one kind of alcohol when drinking 52 percent
Use a designated driver 89 percent

Source: National College Health Assessment, Fall 2015; 19,800 respondents, anonymous and randomized

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Article sources

Jason Kilmer, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science, University of Washington; assistant director of health and wellness for alcohol and other drug education, Division of Student Life, University of Washington.

Joan Masters, MEd, senior coordinator, Partners in Prevention, University of Missouri Wellness Resource Center; area consultant, The BACCHUS Network.

Ann Quinn-Zobeck, PhD, former senior director of initiatives and training, The BACCHUS Network.

Ryan Travia, MEd, associate dean of students for wellness, Babson College, Massachusetts; founding director, Office of Alcohol & Other Drug Services (AODS), Harvard University.

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