Social Anxiety Drinking: Does Alcohol Cause More Stress?

Alcohol’s Power In Social Interactions

Social anxiety can be a very debilitating condition for some people. Some individuals turn to alcohol to find relief from their symptoms and realize that alcohol doesn’t actually help them at all. For some, alcohol can perpetuate the symptoms of social anxiety, which is exactly what the individual was afraid of in the first place. For others, it helps but does not effectively cure the situation and goes on to debilitate the user.

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is defined as avoidance of others due to being afraid that interactions with others will lead to being negatively judged or embarrassed. This can lead a person with social anxiety to feel:

  • Self-conscious
  • Insufficient
  • Mortified
  • Uncomfortable
  • Inferior
  • Unhappy

Anxiety in certain situations is normal, such as before a big presentation or when meeting a group of new people. However, if the anxiety is unfounded or irrational, then social anxiety may be the problem. There are two types of social anxiety: generalized social anxiety and specific social anxiety (such as only during public speaking). Generalized social anxiety is more common than specific social anxiety. Social anxiety is very prevalent among the US population with only depression and alcoholism being more predominant.

People with generalized social anxiety usually will have difficulty and experience emotional anguish when meeting authority or new individuals, being the center of attention, enduring social situations, and in some personal relationships. A person may feel:

  • Intense anxiety
  • Fear
  • Flushing
  • Shaking
  • Sweating

A person with social anxiety is aware that the anxiety is illogical but cannot stop the symptoms.

Why Sufferers Turn to Alcohol

Alcohol is often used because of its mental effects. In the beginning stages of drinking, alcohol leads to reduced inhibitions, impaired judgement and a lowered decision-making capacity. For someone with social anxiety disorder, being free of inhibition, or at least lowering inhibition and being able to relax a bit, is very helpful. They believe that they will not experience the debilitating effects of their anxiety if they drink alcohol.

Other times, this relaxed state from alcohol can be extremely detrimental.  If the person says or does something that they are embarrassed over or regret, it can perpetuate their fears and intensify their social anxiety. If the person doesn’t realize that alcohol is actually more detrimental to their situation, regardless of how they may feel in the moment, then this can create a negative loop. Other people will avoid alcohol because they actually fear that it will make them embarrass themselves in certain situations instead of help.

Alcohol depresses the nervous system over time.  This leads to slower cognitive function, high blood pressure, mental fogginess, and can actually increase tension. In addition, alcohol affects bodily organs and their functions negatively and contributes to disease in the brain, heart, stomach and liver.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

According to the National Institutes of Health study Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Use, “About 1/5th of patients with social anxiety disorder also suffer from an alcohol use disorder (AUD).”  This is an extremely high number.  As many people know, alcohol is not an effective treatment for social anxiety, however many people don’t even realize that it is social anxiety they are suffering from.

Both social anxiety and alcohol abuse are treatable conditions, and they both respond well to a similar type of treatment. Cognitive behavioral therapy is great for social anxiety because it helps the individual with restructuring negative schema and cognitions and challenging their social anxiety head on. Cognitive behavioral therapy is great for treating alcohol abuse because it helps to reframe and restructure beliefs about alcohol and also offers other skills and solutions for when an individual wants to use alcohol.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has four different components. They are exposure therapy, cognitive restructuring, relaxation training, and social skills training. Cognitive restructuring focuses on challenging negative schema, learning new beliefs, to stop anxiety inciting thoughts. Exposure therapy recommends exposing the individual to anxiety inciting situations and utilizing using skills learned in therapy. Relaxation training aims to help manage the physical responses to anxiety. Social skills training is for those who need to learn how better ways to respond or act in social situations.

If you are dealing with social anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse, look for an outpatient program that specializes in dual diagnosis. It is important to treat both the social anxiety and alcohol abuse, not just the alcohol use. If you aren’t assessed for social anxiety or not treated for it and you do have it, then there is a chance that you will likely relapse after going through treatment for alcohol abuse. It is important to get the proper support to manage and find relief from the symptoms of social anxiety, so that there are other supports to turn to instead of turning to alcohol.