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Social Anxiety and Alcohol Use: A Complex Relationship

Using alcohol to self-medicate social anxiety can backfire.

If you've developed a problem with alcohol or other substance use from trying to cope with your social anxiety, you're not alone. Meet Debbie and Jason.

Taylor Davidson/unsplash
Source: Taylor Davidson/unsplash

Debbie’s coworkers always asked her to go to Happy Hour on Fridays after work. When she reluctantly agreed, she routinely drank in the car before she even got to the bar. She thought it would loosen her up so she wouldn’t be so anxious around others.

Jason was trying to meet a partner using various dating apps. He had to drink before any of his dates because he was so anxious. Even so, he felt sick to his stomach.

Debbie and Jason found they were drinking more and more to be able to engage in anxiety provoking social situations, not just prior to, but then during the situation, as well.

Social anxiety disorder is usually triggered by social situations in which emotions like fear or embarrassment may arise. Symptoms of social anxiety disorder include:

Difficulty talking to others
Fear of judgement
Highly self-conscious feelings while in the company of others
Excessive worrying about an upcoming social event
Nausea when around other people
Trembling around others

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) notes that 20 percent of people dealing with social anxiety disorder suffer from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence.

Because alcohol is often readily available in social situations, it's an understandable coping strategy.

When you use alcohol or other substances to deal with social anxiety, two paths can emerge:

  1. You get treatment for the social anxiety and the substance use naturally declines and is not a problem.
  2. The substance use may have become a habit with a life of its own, and you end up needing to deal with two problems (the substance use and the social anxiety).

Regardless of which path your situation falls into, here are some important things to consider:

  • Be sure to give your doctor an accurate account of how much you drink or what drugs you use. Although it can be potentially embarrassing to share this information, your health depends on it. Similarly, if you're seeing a therapist, make sure he or she knows as well.
  • It can be dangerous to drink while taking many prescription medications for depression and anxiety. Be sure to follow the guidelines for your particular medication.
  • Realize that despite the immediate perception that alcohol has a calming affect, it actually increases anxiety over the long term.
  • Using alcohol can make you more socially comfortable but also less socially competent.
  • Going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings can be an overwhelming prospect for those with social anxiety. You may need to work individually with a therapist before this option even becomes a possibility. But if you do go to an AA meeting, you can be sure there will be others there with socially anxiety, just like you. There are also other recovery model programs besides AA.
  • Most importantly, don't give up! Anxiety disorders are very treatable, and if your mental health professionals know about your alcohol use, you can get the appropriate care for both issues.


Do You Have Social Anxiety Disorder?

Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA)

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

Other Blog Posts You Might Like:

Must Have Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety

Is Social Anxiety Getting You Down?

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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia which was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice.

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