Substance use is not a new topic for young adults. The rate of substance abuse (both drugs and alcohol) among college students has risen steadily in recent years. A recent study found that 37% of college students have used an illegal drug and/or abused alcohol on a regular basis. While there is not a direct correlation between substance abuse and mental health disorders, many young adults turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and ease the symptoms of undiagnosed mental health issues. Symptoms related to mental health problems can also be worsened or trigger new symptoms with the use of drugs and alcohol. And when combined with medications like anti-anxiety pills, antidepressants and mood stabilizers, drugs and alcohol can make symptoms more difficult to manage.

Substance use is a common coping mechanism among college students as a way to de-stress and connect with others. College students with anxiety disorders are particularly vulnerable to substance use. According to developmental research on substance use among college students, substance use peaks during transitional periods in one’s life where individuals turn to substances to cope with the stress of responsibilities and anxiety around the unknown. 

Signs of Anxiety Disorders in College Students

It is not surprising that many college students struggle with some degree of anxiety. While many college students look forward to socializing with like-minded peers, many also struggle with living on their own for the first time. They have to manage heavy loads of coursework, balance a part-time job or volunteer experience, creating and following a self made schedule, and cope with the stress of choosing a career based on their education goals. This college stress is often compounded by unhealthy habits, like poor quality of sleep, a lack of nutrition, and excessive caffeine intake–not to mention the frequent occurrence of parties or other social events that are based around alcohol consumption.

Some common signs of anxiety include:

  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Insomnia and fatigue
  • Excessive worrying about the future
  • A sense of impending doom or failure
  • Feeling overwhelmed by tasks and to-do lists
  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, shortness of breath, and numbness or tingling in the limbs or entire body
  • Overthinking social interactions
  • Lack of confidence in meeting teacher and parent expectations and personal goals

One of the biggest hurdles college students with anxiety face is the inability to communicate that they are struggling. They are experiencing life for the first time without the safety net of home, family, and friends. For some young adults, anxiety may also present with feelings of shame or failure. They may feel embarrassed that their anxiety is causing them to fall behind their peers. Being overwhelmed by anxiety may also cause them to catastrophize and view problems that actually have simple solutions as insurmountable. In high school they may have reached out to their parents when they were struggling. But now in college, they may feel like they are disappointing their parents if they are not being successful. 

In today’s world, these feelings can also be exacerbated by social media. Young adults have easy and constant access to their friends’ lives through social media. They may see their old friends flourishing during their college experience, which can trigger their anxiety. They may also resent the fact that they are not having the same experience as their friends. Social media may cause young adults to compare themselves to their friends and then wonder why they can’t enjoy the college experience the way their friends seem to be. These feelings combined with the addictive qualities of social media use can create a negative and anxious loop, where young adults continue the negative behaviors even when it is causing them distress. 

These intense feelings of shame or embarrassment may cause students to hide how they are feeling, and instead, seek out substances that can distract or numb them from their situation. 

How Does Anxiety Predict Substance Use?

For some college students, experiencing anxiety may have been more adaptive in high school, if they channeled this energy towards perfectionistic tendencies and goal-setting. Many people with anxiety disorders are overachievers, as they place a high value on other people’s approval and the expectations that they set for themselves. However, when they get into their dream school and their goals seem closer to reach, they often become more overwhelmed. 

Some college students begin to experiment with substances as a prop in social situations. Drinking alcohol can help students blend in with their peers who are also drinking in social situations as well as mask any signs of anxiety they might be experiencing. It is often referred to as “liquid courage,” as it numbs anxious thoughts, calms restless energy, and detaches a person from any physical sensations they may be feeling. It is also more socially acceptable to share anxious thoughts or to have an adverse reaction while drinking and to credit it to substance use rather than anxiety. 

Other students begin to experiment with substances as “study drugs,” either by taking stimulants to help them focus in class or on assignments or by smoking marijuana to help them feel more calm and creative when working on assignments. Similarly, some students use substances to help them manage their sleep schedules and eating habits. When students lack confidence in their own ability to complete assignments, develop routines, and regulate these patterns, they may begin to rely on a false sense of achievement from substances.

Studies suggest that anxiety disorders predict earlier first use of substances and the progression of substance-related consequences. Individuals who self-medicate uncomfortable negative feelings with substances are more likely to find that substance use reinforces these feelings, which leads to greater frequency and quantity of their use. What begins as using a substance once to help them through a difficult situation can quickly spiral into habitual use and reliance. 

Adventure Therapy Helps Mediate Effects of Self-Medication

Self-medicating anxiety with substances only “works” for a few hours—at the most—but it is not a sustainable tool for coping with anxiety. Over time, experimenting with substances only adds different types of stress rather than alleviating baseline levels of stress. Adventure therapy teaches young adults healthier coping skills that not only reduce feelings of anxiety in the moment but help them feel more confident in their everyday lives. 

Incorporating adventure therapy activities into treatment leads to an increased “buy in” to therapy with young adults, largely due to the variety of fun activities offered through a therapeutic lens. Aside from more actively engaging young adults in treatment, adventure therapy allows young adults to adapt and thrive in a variety of settings, activities, and adventures. With each new adventure therapy experience, young adults learn to apply their new coping mechanisms. Where a stressful situation may have once triggered them to reach for alcohol, they now have a different tool box to work from. 

Adventure therapy is an evidence-based therapeutic approach which utilizes the powerful healing properties of the outdoors to promote change and growth within individuals. Young adults can especially benefit from this programming because it completely removes them from the distractions and of their life at home and allows them to focus on their own personal growth and healing. Adventure therapy activities like rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and whitewater rafting push young adults out of their comfort zone to engage in fun, exciting activities within a healing, supportive environment. Experiencing success and eventual mastery in these adventure therapy activities helps young adults build their confidence and a stronger connection to their sense of self. This strong sense of self can help college students feel grounded and purposeful in their life. 

Rather than self-medicating, the adventure activities provide young adults the opportunity to get a “high” in a more constructive way. There are times of intense focus followed by moments of thrill and enjoyment. By building on each individual’s strengths, adventure therapy allows young adults to learn new, healthy coping strategies, behavioral and emotional regulation skills, leadership skills, and life skills. 

BlueFire PulsaR Can Help

BlueFire PulsaR is a coeducational wilderness therapy program for young adults ages 18-28 struggling with anxiety and the transition to adulthood. Adventure therapy, wilderness ventures, equine therapy, academic opportunities and “family spark” are used to help students find power in vulnerability and reflect on how the cycle of anxiety has affected their lives. From there they are able to experience growth and adopt healthy self-management skills. This program is dedicated to helping students regain a better sense of the world around them while addressing their emotions and needs head-on.

We help young adults step out of their comfort zone, improve their self-esteem, and help our clients build their confidence through self-success. Our program helps create positive changes and improvements through engagement and adventure. We have a supportive environment that encourages clients to push themselves physically and emotionally to create lasting changes. Throughout their time in nature, young adults have the chance to build important life skills and work towards achieving goals they’d never imagined they could accomplish. For more information about how we help young adults struggling with anxiety, please call 208-269-7407.

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