Academic Stress & Substance Use: What You Should Know

By Emma Johnson — MA, MFTC, CAS

Academic stress may trigger substance abuse; for example, abusing prescription medications to improve focus on coursework.

Academic Stress, Substance Use, & Adolescence

The beginning of each school year is full of many stressors including quizzes, tests, projects, music, theater, and sports performances, as well as uncomfortable social settings. These, in addition to students’ or parents’ expectations to succeed, can increase anxiety and overwhelm, causing kids to look to something else to help alleviate the pressure they are under.

Substances are used for a variety of reasons by people including celebration, relaxation, and social or cultural norms. However, they are also becoming widely utilized by younger populations as a coping mechanism. Academic stress and anxiety is one of the leading causes for alcohol and drug abuse among middle school, high school, and college students.

The Correlation Between Academic Stress & Substance Use

The pressure students find themselves under during school leads to two primary reasons they may begin using substances. The use of substances may be to relieve the tension and emotional overwhelm they are experiencing from being academically overloaded. Alternatively, student’s may turn to substances in an attempt to advance their performance in an academic setting.

What Substances Do Students Use?

Four primary categories of substances are being used by students in an attempt to reduce stress or improve performance including:

  • Alcohol – Oftentimes used to take the edge off and help relax.
  • Marijuana – Often used to take the edge off and help relax.
  • Sedatives – Commonly prescribed to help with anxiety or panic attacks to increase relaxation or sleep. Abused due to their ability to reduce anxieties and overwhelm. Commonly Abused Brands: Valium, Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin, & Xanax
  • Stimulants – Frequently prescribed to increase alertness, attention and energy, primarily for ADHD. Abused due to their ability to increase focus and consistent attention. Commonly Abused Brands: Adderall, Concerta, Ritalin, Vyvanse, Dexedrine, & Mydayis
Students may abuse substances for a variety of reasons, including relaxation and focus.

As a Parent, What Can I Do?

As a parent, it is your number one responsibility to keep your child safe. But, let’s face it, the likelihood of your middle school, high school, or in some instances college student telling you about their use/abuse of substances is unlikely. Unfortunately, there is no foolproof answer to ensure they are not and never will abuse substances, but there are some things you can do to try and help.

First, create an environment and relationship where an open and honest conversation about substance use can be had. This will increase the likelihood and willingness of your child reaching out if ever necessary.

Second, reconsider and reevaluate your expectations of your child’s academic performance, ask yourself if getting straight A’s is worth the possibility of them taking another student’s medication.

Third, accept that your child is human and will make mistakes, and provide them with unconditional support and love despite this. Finally, promote adaptive coping mechanisms like those below:

  • Use School/Campus Resources
  • Positive Self-Talk
  • Focus on What You Can Control
  • Accept Humanness
  • Forgive Yourself
  • Ask for Help
  • Spend time in nature
  • Spend time with friends and family
  • Take Breaks
  • Exercise
  • Eat a Healthy Diet
  • Increase sleep
  • Meditate
  • Listen to music
  • Set Aside Days to relax
  • Therapy

What to Watch Out For

Just as people benefit from checking in on their physical and mental health, checking in on substance use health is just as important. If you’ve noticed an increase in personal substance use as a means of coping, it is important to remember the four C’s.

  • Cravings – Do you often experience cravings for the substance(s)?
  • Control – Do you feel a loss of control when using the substance(s)?
  • Compulsion – Do you feel compelled to use the substance(s)?
  • Consequences – Do you continue to use the substance(s) despite negative consequences?

If any of the above become apparent, it may be time to seek professional assistance. If you or your child are suffering with substance abuse, there are numerous resources available including support groups, outpatient, and inpatient settings.

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