Everyone deals with a certain degree of social anxiety from time to time. But while the majority of people are able to get through some awkwardness in order to maintain a healthy social life, others find the thought literally impossible.
Around 7 percent of adults have social anxiety disorder (SAD). Many people use drinking as a way to deal with their anxiety, and even cite this as their reason for starting to drink. But ultimately this practice makes anxiety worse and puts users at risk for alcohol addiction and a host of other stress-inducing complications.
This is partially why 28 percent of those who are diagnosed with SAD also suffer from long-term alcohol use disorder. Additionally, about 20 percent of social anxiety sufferers also have an alcohol addiction. Because SAD is such a common condition, affecting two to 13 percent of the general population, it’s easy to see how important it is to find more constructive ways to address this widespread issue.
Drinking to Cope With Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
Social anxiety disorder is defined by the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic Manual (DSM-5) as “A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” People with SAD worry that they might act in a way that’s embarrassing and the knowledge that they’ll have to be social in some way prompts extreme anxiety.
People with this disorder, unsurprisingly, tend to drink most in social situations. Drinking might initially ease fears and provide some desperately sought-after social lubricant. But over time, drinkers build a tolerance to alcohol’s relaxing effects – in short, it no longer works. Not only is it ineffective, but alcohol actually makes anxiety more severe.
How Alcohol Makes Anxiety Worse
Alcohol is a powerful central nervous system depressant and sedative, which is why its relaxing effects provide so much relief to those experiencing high levels of stress. But for people who are predisposed to anxiety, alcohol creates an anxiety feedback loop that compounds the disorder, making everything far worse than it was in the first place.
Drinking in large quantities, or regularly over long periods of time, can also have a significant impact on your mental, physical and emotional health. Consequences of alcohol abuse include memory loss, cognitive impairment and damage to your interpersonal relationships – and these can all create more anxiety as you struggle to manage their outcomes in your life.
One of the main contributors to alcohol-related anxiety is sleep disruption. Aside from the fact that late nights of drinking throw off your normal sleep schedule, it robs your body of deep sleep. Alcohol decreases rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the part of sleep that has the most restorative benefits. And sleep deprivation leads to further increased anxiety.
If you’ve been drinking heavily and have become physically dependent on alcohol, you may suffer from alcohol withdrawals, of which anxiety is a major symptom. And, if you’ve been doing it for a very long time, you may be at higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder, as alcohol alters your brain chemistry and impairs your ability to regulate your emotions.
Tips for Dealing With Social Anxiety – Sober
While many other phobias can be avoided, socializing is a necessary part of life. California-based depression and anxiety therapist Greta Angert says, “The thing about social anxiety is it’s unavoidable. It’s not like a fear of heights or planes, where you can choose to avoid the situation.”
So how should you deal with an upcoming social situation without using alcohol as a crutch? A little preparation goes a long way.
1. Work out, do yoga or practice breathing exercises beforehand
Mind-body practices boost your endorphins and confidence, giving you an edge up when it comes to navigating situations you find intimidating. Try a simple breathing technique: slowly count your inhales and exhales, elongating your breath and making it even. This delivers more oxygen to your bloodstream, which has a calming effect, and sends a signal to your brain that you’re okay (as opposed to shallow breathing which leads to more panic).
2. Talk to yourself
Verbalize your fears. Once they’re out there and identified, they’re no longer so looming and scary. If talking aloud isn’t your thing, you can also try jotting them down. Talk to yourself positively, reminding yourself that the reality of the situation is not as scary as your mind thinks it is.
3. Don’t overcommit
Set a time frame for yourself before you even arrive at a social event. Having an idea of the duration going in will help you mentally prepare. And don’t fret about leaving early – people do it all the time; they’ll just assume you have other plans. Remember that your are free to choose what is in your best interest.
4. Take a time-out if you need to
While it’s important to learn how to navigate situations you may find uncomfortable, there’s no need to overdo it by putting too much pressure on yourself. If you start to feel panicked or overwhelmed, take a few minutes to yourself to breathe, practice relaxation techniques, and/ or confide in a friend.
5. Enlist a friend
One way to avoid social paralysis is to bring a buddy. Arrange to hang out with people you feel comfortable around. Outgoing friends who don’t have a problem introducing themselves to new people or carrying the conversation through moments of awkward silence can be especially helpful. Practice asking for help.
6. Prepare some ideas beforehand
If the idea of small talk terrifies you, take some in-the-moment pressure off by thinking of a few light conversation topics beforehand. Go with open-ended questions that show interest in the other person and take the focus off you. This also helps the other person feel you’re connecting with them on a genuine level.
7. Keep practicing
Take opportunities to expose yourself to small social challenges, and take a moment to reflect on your successes. “Taking small steps to win against anxiety helps desensitize how scary socializing can be,” says James Gross, Ph.D., director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory. Each small victory will continue to build your confidence.
8. Get help
If social anxiety is driving you to drink at levels you’re concerned about, it may be time to consider professional help. Therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) are proven to be effective in treating social anxiety disorder.
Here at Serenity Vista, we offer a deeply transformational, holistic alcohol addiction treatment program that addresses both your alcohol-related issues and the anxiety underlying them. Our small group size means you receive intensive counseling and plenty of one-on-one support.
For more information on how we can help you freely realize your best life, contact us today.