Drinking to Cope with Social Situations?
How to spot and reduce problematic drinking.
Posted Jan 08, 2020
When we experience intense anxiety about social situations, we tend to feel a strong urge to avoid them. For example, we might decline invitations to parties, give up opportunities to network with clients, or refrain from dating. This avoidance is very problematic because it prevents us from realizing that these situations are usually not as bad as we play them out to be. Anxiety is always worse in our heads (Barlow, 2002).
When this overt type avoidance is not possible (say, when we have to attend a family party, are told by our boss we must hang out with clients, or are set up on a blind date), we sometimes resort to more subtle forms of avoidance. That’s right! Our anxious minds are very creative and will do whatever it takes to make us avoid that which makes us anxious. Thus, we don't face our anxiety, which places us in a perpetual state of dread about the future (Rachman et al., 2008).
One very common form of subtle avoidance is drinking alcohol. It’s almost “the” perfect form of subtle avoidance for social situations because, in many cases, it is actually a sanctioned behavior. Having a few beers or a couple of mixed drinks is perfectly acceptable, if not outright encouraged, in many social settings. So, drinking to manage our social anxiety can be particularly tricky – isn't drinking what we’re supposed to be doing in social situations anyway? But, when we drink to cope with anxiety, we might end up making things a lot worse. Below, I describe three ways in which drinking to lower anxiety can be particularly problematic and, as always, provide suggestions based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
- Drinking might become a clutch. When we rely on alcohol to lower the anxiety we feel in social situations, we might end up attributing the “success” of our performance to the drinking. As such, alcohol might become a clutch, chipping away at our self-esteem and making us feel more anxious (Rachman et al., 2008).
- Drinking might lead to the very same outcomes we fear. Alcohol lowers our inhibitions, so when we drink excessively, we might end up saying and/or doing things that we probably shouldn’t. We might end up acting inappropriately and/or embarrassing ourselves. So, paradoxically, we might be making our worst scenarios come true!
- Drinking might become a problem of its own. Needless to say, frequently drinking alcohol to manage our anxiety can result in a much more generalized tendency to use alcohol to cope with all kinds of unpleasant feelings and sensations. In this case, this could lead us to develop an alcohol abuse disorder.
How can we reduce this problematic drinking?
The first step entails realizing we are drinking to cope with anxiety, which might seem super easy to do, but is actually quite complex. Are we pouring that extra drink because we are having fun and getting carried away? Or because we are seeking to quench our anxiety? Identifying which of these motivations is having a stronger influence on our behavior is a great first step in determining whether our alcohol use might be problematic.
The second step entails making a plan for drinking less and less and allowing the anxiety to come to the surface. I know this is difficult and scary. But, this "exposure" to anxiety is at the center of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is the gold-standard evidence-based treatment for anxiety. Exposure is quite difficult to do, so it’s always best to practice it under the care and guidance of a mental health professional. (See Psychology Today's Find a Therapist.)
As always, these posts are for educational purposes only. If you suspect that you – or other people in your life – might be struggling with mental health problems or a substance related issue, please reach out to a mental health professional.
Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Rachman, S., Radomsky, A. S., & Shafran, R. (2008). Safety behavior: A reconsideration Behavior Therapy & Research, 46, 163-173. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2007.11.008