Watch Out for the Warning Signs

They call it the "bar car." Each evening at rush hour, frenzied commuters pour into Grand Central terminal as they head home from high-stress jobs in New York City; many of them who ride the New Haven line make a beeline to the car that sells alcoholic beverages. For a few bucks, these weary workers have found a cheap and easy way to chill out before they reach their destination.

If you're reading this, no one has to tell you that the stress of long days and nights laboring in a lab can be just as taxing as the work of day traders, investment bankers, and media moguls in the Big Apple. Despite the romanticized image of ivy-covered labs set on bucolic campuses, trainees and scientists know that working in a place where people strive to achieve, compete for grants, and are pressured to publish can be wearing on the psyche. Stress is high. Nerves are frayed. It's hard to unwind.

Sit down for a minute. Can I pour you a glass of Cabernet and tell you about it?

Because Everybody Does

When we recently queried readers of the postdoc listserv about their use of booze to unwind, the virtual silence was deafening. We presumed that you were too busy with your work, too embarrassed, or too hung over from the night before to chime in. But responses eventually trickled in, and a few strong voices emerged.

"My experience has been that alcohol use is nearly pervasive, particularly among males in science," says A, a fourth-year postdoc at an academic medical center. "I work in a large lab with several postdocs. Every male postdoc whom I knew well enough to ask would drink regularly, some every night."

"Since college, I've known alcohol to have a big presence in scientific circles," says B., another postdoc. "As an undergrad, I worked in a herpetology lab, and in June, we'd spend about a month along the banks of the Mississippi, collecting data and eggs from map turtles. Every few nights or so we'd all drive out to the local bar and have a few beers and the occasional shot and forget the fact that it was over 100 degrees on that sandbar---with no shade. It certainly made the mosquitoes more tolerable."

"Scientific meetings are notorious for drinking," adds postdoc B. "You go to talks all day, and at the end of the day, everyone's figuring out where all the bars are. It's not just the graduate students and postdocs. I've had several PIs buy me drinks, too," he says.

"Why do we drink?" postdoc B. asks rhetorically. "Because everyone else does!"

"My main rationale for its use was to 'turn off' at the end of the day," says postdoc A. "I felt like scientific training and research required nonstop, high-concentration analytic thinking. Although this approach is useful with empirical data, it isn't always the best choice for dealing with other topics or with interpersonal relationships. Alcohol would help me shut up the scientist in my head for a while, so I could enjoy a symphony or have a heart-to-heart talk with my wife or read a good novel. But I'm sure many people can make this transition without chemical assistance."

"One institution actually sponsored wine-and-cheese get-togethers on Friday afternoons before seminars. It was relaxing and a way to step out of the lab and be with others," says postdoc C.

Postdoc B. confided candidly, "I'll admit to occasional heavy use of both alcohol and marijuana when my experiments go bad, my relationships suck, and my car needs new brakes and tires, but do I have a problem with it? I would say 'No,' as would my doctor."

Although moderate drinking appears to be ubiquitous across science settings, the good news it that alcohol abuse is relatively uncommon, according to our sources, or else it's very well hidden. "I've been in research science for almost 25 years, at seven different institutions---as a student, a technician, a grad student, and a postdoc," says postdoc C. "Never, in all this time, have I observed any serious abuse of alcohol or drugs. Beer and wine seem to be the drinks of choice."

We don't have hard statistics on booze use by science trainees but, according to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics, 62.7% of adults in America over the age of 18 drink alcohol at least once a year. The percentage of those who indulge in five or more drinks on a single day during 1 year is 32.2%. No surprise: Alcohol consumption is highest for the group between the ages of 18 and 24.

"Alcohol abuse is a major issue on college campuses," comments Marc Galanter, a professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine and director of the division of alcohol and substance abuse. "Among those abusing, the majority will self-limit their use over time as they move into graduate-level training---but a portion will continue to have difficulties."

As a whole, about 15% of the American population will suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence in adulthood, and there's no evidence that this figure is either lower or higher among people who choose to go into professional or graduate training in science, says Galanter.

The Fine Line Between Use and Abuse

Yes, science trainees---like many other people---have a proclivity for drinking. A spate of recent findings about the protective effects of alcohol on health may increase its attraction and overuse. Did I tell you about the study that showed that moderate drinking of red wine might ward off dementia in women?

"Alcohol, in small or moderate doses, is an effective antianxiety agent, and undoubtedly, much of its popularity for use in social gatherings is due to this," comments Galanter. "With excessive use, it is much more likely to create problems, rather than the benefits [that] a modest level of drinking can confer."

"Because alcohol, particularly in the form of red wine, has been found to be protective of cardiac disease, people with alcohol problems may turn to such findings to rationalize abuse," says Galanter. "There is no evidence that having more than one or two drinks a day can confer any health benefits."

"One of the cardinal aspects of alcoholism certainly, and alcohol abuse, to varying degrees, is the inability to appreciate the reality of the problem," says Galanter. Denial limits a person's ability to recognize the nature of the problem and to seek appropriate help, he adds.

So what is safe drinking? The U.S. government quantifies "safe" as one standard drink per day for women and two standard drinks per day for men. (A standard drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.) More than 7 drinks per week for women or 14 drinks per week for men may be a sign of a problem. If you, your colleague, or your mentor is drinking to excess, that is a problem that shouldn't be ignored. The potential adverse consequences for family, health, and career are too great.

The answer to the question "How much is too much?" isn't Absolute. (No, I'm not talking about the vodka.) Each of us must be willing to examine honestly how much is too much.

"We are largely self-led in our research pursuits, and our success often depends on intangibles such as energy, passion, and creativity," says postdoc A. "It is difficult to measure what effect prolonged, regular use of any drug might have on such output. I may complete my research according to my mentor's standards, my department chair's standards, or the standards of my manuscript reviewers. But how much more productive and creative might I be without alcohol? Who can answer that?"

Web resources on alcoholism and alcohol abuse:

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is an accomplished freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.

Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.