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The Transition from College Drinking to Professional Life

A common issue that occurs in our practice deals with the difficulties of transitioning from drinking behaviors in college to drinking behaviors in young adult/professional life. In college, there is an emphasis on partying, drinking socially, and using substances as a reward for working hard during the week in classes. This type of behavior has created a “work hard, play hard” mentality that has impacted the professional executives we work with in therapy. Research shows that frequent binge drinking between ages 18 and 25 years old appears to be a major risk factor for alcohol dependence in adulthood (Tavolacci, et al. 2019). In this article, our Manhattan addiction professionals will highlight some thoughts and behaviors that people develop in college, which may hurt their ability to cope with stress in adulthood and encourage the use of substances to cope with that stress.

The Pressure to Drink and Use Substances in College

College embodies many things for people: sense of identity, belonging, education, direction, and socialization. It is designed to provide the necessary education for people to be successful and informed in their career choices. However, as time has passed, we have seen college become a place where teenagers form their identities and find belonging by joining various fraternities/sororities, clubs, and majors. Additionally, college has become associated as a place where people are exposed to substances. In many cases, these substances are used for the following reasons:

Interestingly, research shows that, while in high school, seniors who are bound to go to college tend to drink less heavily than their peers who are not college-bound. However, these college-bound high school seniors tend to go on to drink more heavily (i.e., more frequent heavy drinking occasions) post high school (O’Malley & Johnston, 2002). Thus, it appears that the transition to college is accompanied by a major change in people’s drinking behavior.

In college, young adults tend to not count their drinks, know their limits, care about the consequences of going over their limits, or use healthy strategies to prevent blackouts. These types of behaviors are rarely taught to teenagers as well as young adults. However, if they have been taught, they may be perceived as unimportant. Most young adults tend to want to learn these lessons on their own and minimize the negative impacts of substances on their well-being. This minimization can be detrimental as most young adults do not tend to develop these healthier habits or behaviors until after they have “hit a bottom” or have impacted their functioning (i.e., career, relationships, responsibilities). According to an article titled, “Heavy Drinking Across the Transition to College,” predictors for binge drinking in college/young adult years include the following:

  • Those who are male
  • Those who drink prior to college
  • Those with friends who are heavier drinkers
  • Those who smoke cigarettes
  • Those who use other substances
  • Those who value college partying
  • Those who are able to obtain alcohol
  • Those who are less interested in attending college to gain knowledge

Developmental Difficulties Teens and Young Adults Experience

We have found that many habits developed in adolescence/college years have remained consistent, if not worsened, in young adults. About one-half of students who meet alcohol use disorder criteria at age 19 maintain that status at age 25 (Merrill & Carey, 2016). This shows that many behaviors developed in college continue or exacerbate in young adult years. It is important to understand why college students/young adults are susceptible to forming and having an alcohol addiction. To understand why they are susceptible, we must understand the stage they are in developmentally and the issues they may be dealing with.

Below are some of the developmental difficulties one may experience in teenage/young adult ages (Merrill & Carey, 2016):

  • Identity Exploration: People in this age group are exploring their identity (particularly their identity with love and work). Alcohol can be used as a tool to explore a wide range of lifestyle options before adopting adult roles.
  • Instability: People may experience significant transitions within this period (i.e., moving from home, moving in with a girlfriend, starting a job, getting married, or having a child). They may also be learning how to network and create new friendships. Alcohol use can be elevated during periods of transitions to self-medicate and to help with social activity.
  • Self-Focus: People are beginning to gain independence from family. They want to also increase freedom from obligations and commitments to others. They want to make independent decisions; however, these decisions are now made with weaker social controls from family and other institutions – experiencing fewer constraints on risk behaviors. In this stage, friends have a very high influence on their decisions. People who are more inclined to use alcohol likely will establish friendships that support drinking and thus will be highly influenced to drink more.
  • Feeling in-between: People in this stage are considered “emerging adults.” They feel neither adolescent nor fully an adult. Therefore, they may feel a sense of responsibility in some domains and not others. They feel they are capable of making decisions regarding alcohol use and do not feel the need to conform to adult standards. They may see college and post-college years as a “time out” from adult responsibilities and can enjoy riskier drinking. They believe that they will be able to stop when they “become an adult.”
  • Possibilities: This age group has an emphasis on “things will work out, try new things, make decisions, and make dramatic changes in your life.” They have positive expectations for the future, which may be towards their drinking as well. They may not acknowledge the negative consequences related to drinking and may be hopeful that they will be able to stop eventually.

The Issue with the “Work Hard, Play Hard” Mentality in College

Some ways that college drinking and substance use have impacted adulthood is through this “work hard, play hard” mentality. Many high-functioning professionals allow themselves to go through intense stress throughout the work week to meet deadlines, complete projects, and network, and, in turn, “blow off steam” on the weekends to release the stress. Our Manhattan psychiatrists have found that high levels of stress endured during the week equates to higher levels of “partying” to “release” the stress. As stress levels and responsibilities in the workplace increase, this cycle begins to expand into the weeknights. These clients might begin with binge drinking on the weekends to cope and eventually find that partying on the weekend is no longer sufficient to reduce stress levels. These clients then expand into needing several drinks every night to help them cope with daily stressors, check out from “work mode,” and help them fall asleep without racing thoughts. Clients we tend to see have realized their drinking behaviors worsen and impact their day-to-day functioning. They tend to seek help when they are experiencing a negative spiral in the morning after drinking, getting injured while under the influence, drinking while at work, or replaying what they said the night before. Some clients also seek help when they are experiencing a big transition in life in which they need to adjust, such as becoming a parent.

Transitioning from College to Professional Life

Transitioning from college to young adult/professional life can be difficult. Not only does one have to learn to navigate healthy and responsible drinking, but one must also learn to manage finances, individuate from family, begin a career, and develop identity/hobbies. All of these transitions can be difficult, and it can be challenging to find a road map to navigate these areas. It is not as clear as “Here are the classes you must take to fulfill your major and graduate.” Life post-college can be unpredictable and unclear, which can also increase anxiety. To deal with this anxiety and to combat “imposter syndrome” while working in a new discipline, some people turn to alcohol to cope.

Society’s Normalization of Alcohol and Substance Use

The reality is alcohol and substances are normalized around us. It is difficult to say no to an event, especially when transitioning from college to adulthood. Alcohol is prevalent at events, social gatherings, paint classes, movie theaters, and on dates. It is hard to say no or to adjust a lifestyle when alcohol is present and encouraged at happy hours with colleagues, Broadway shows, concerts, sporting events, family get-togethers, weddings, bachelor trips, etc. Alcohol is often associated with a way to connect with others. Most people, who recognize they would benefit from quitting alcohol, have trouble doing so because they feel they will have to let go of the way they socialize and connect with others.

Our Manhattan Alcohol Addiction Psychiatrists Work with Executives and Professionals

At Fifth Avenue Psychiatry, we use an approach tailored toward the individual. We understand that it is hard to become sober and to decide that alcohol or substances will no longer be a part of life. Our alcohol addiction psychiatrists in Manhattan help clients learn how to drink in moderation and use tools to develop a “healthy drinking behavior.” If you are sober-curious or would like to understand your relationship with substances, our Manhattan addiction psychiatrists can help you explore your patterns and how they may be impacting your career. We can help you find tools to continue to immerse yourself in society and function within the societal norm to drink while reducing harm.


Merrill, J. E., & Carey, K. B. (2016). Drinking over the lifespan: Focus on college ages. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 38(1), 103–114.

O’Malley, P. M., & Johnston, L. D. (2002). Epidemiology of alcohol and other drug use among American college students. Journal of studies on alcohol. Supplement, (14), 23–39. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsas.2002.s14.23

Sher, K. J., & Rutledge, P. C. (2007). Heavy drinking across the transition to college: predicting first-semester heavy drinking from precollege variables. Addictive behaviors32(4), 819–835. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2006.06.024

Tavolacci, M. P., Berthon, Q., Cerasuolo, D., Dechelotte, P., Ladner, J., & Baguet, A. (2019). Does binge drinking between the age of 18 and 25 years predict alcohol dependence in adulthood? A retrospective case-control study in France. BMJ open9(5), e026375. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2018-026375