In popular culture, phobias are often the subject of horror movies or sitcoms, but in reality, a phobia can cause a state of social and psychological paralysis. People who suffer from social phobia, agoraphobia or specific phobias may isolate themselves from others and avoid any activity that could expose them to the subject of their fear. Drugs or alcohol may be used to overcome the symptoms of phobias, which fall under the category of anxiety disorders. Living with an intense, irrational fear may increase your risk of substance abuse and addiction by driving you to self-medicate in unhealthy ways.
What Is a Phobia?
The word “phobia” means “morbid fear” in Greek. While rational fear can provide life-saving benefits, such as motivating you to avoid hazardous situations, an irrational fear, or phobia, creates anxiety that isn’t justified by reality. Phobias can affect your ability to form relationships, work or pursue hobbies that you enjoy. They can also drive you to numb your fears by drinking or using drugs.
Phobic fears may be more common than you think. The Wexner Medical Institute at Ohio State University reports that phobias and other anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million adults between the ages of 18 and 54 in the United States. Penn Behavioral Health adds that phobias are the most common mental health disorder among females in all age groups and the second most common disorder in males over the age of 25. While all anxiety disorders involve some element of fear, phobias are characterized by specific symptoms, including:
- A sense of overwhelming anxiety when you’re faced with the object or situation that triggers your phobia
- The need to avoid the object of your phobia at all costs, even if it means giving up your favorite activities or withdrawing from social situations
- The feeling that you have no control over your fear, even if you know that it’s not based in reality
- Physical symptoms of fear in response to exposure to the object of your phobia, such as an increased heart rate, shaking, sweating, dizziness chest pain and breathing problems
Phobias fall into three major categories. Specific phobias focus on certain objects, animals, people or situations. The fear of heights (acrophobia), the fear of spiders (arachnophobia) and the fear of enclosed spaces (claustrophobia) are only a few of the most common specific phobias. The second category of phobia is agoraphobia, which literally means “fear of the marketplace,” or “fear of open spaces.” A severe case of agoraphobia can turn you into a literal prisoner in your own home, keeping you locked in a state of anxiety about the outside world.
The third category of phobia, and the one that’s most often associated with addiction, is social phobia. Also known as social anxiety disorder, or SAD, social phobia is one of the most common anxiety disorders, affecting up to 13 percent of the population, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Social phobia is a fear of situations that expose you to the observation or judgment of other people. It may take the form of a general fear of social interactions, or a specific fear of certain activities, such as public speaking, going to parties or eating in front of other people.
How Are Phobias and Addiction Related?
The incidence of drug addiction and alcoholism among people with social anxiety disorder is high. Alcohol, in particular, is used as a way to overcome the fear of being judged by other people. If you suffer from social anxiety disorder, you might have the impression that having a few drinks can reduce your fear in social situations. However, a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that alcohol may not be an effective way to overcome social phobia.
In this study, which tested the effects of alcohol on social anxiety, 20 participants were given an alcoholic beverage before giving a speech in public, and 20 were given a placebo drink that they believed contained alcohol. The alcoholic drinks and the non-alcoholic drinks appeared to affect the subjects in the same way, suggesting that alcohol may not make a subjective difference in the way you respond to social situations. The belief that you’ve had an alcoholic beverage may be enough to relieve the stress of social exposure.
If you use alcohol or drugs on a consistent basis to ease your fears of social situations, you are at risk of chemical dependence and addiction. Ironically, addiction can make social phobia worse by isolating you from supportive friends, damaging your health and heightening the symptoms of anxiety. Legal problems and relationship conflicts can separate you from the people who mean the most to you. If you’re struggling with social anxiety disorder and substance abuse, you need a set of recovery tools that will help you handle both your addiction and your phobia.
Overcoming Phobias and Addiction
A phobia can give you a sense that your life is hopelessly controlled by your fears. You may have trouble going about your daily routines or facing everyday situations without your drink or drug of choice. But these crutches can make your life more difficult in the long run by masking your underlying fears. A treatment plan for phobia and addiction includes individual psychotherapy, group therapy and medication therapy for both conditions.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, treating anxiety disorders effectively requires more than one therapeutic approach. After you’ve been evaluated by a counselor or specialist who’s been trained in addiction treatment and anxiety management, you may be given a treatment plan that includes:
- Prescription drugs, such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications or beta-blockers to reduce the psychological and physical symptoms of anxiety
- Behavioral modification therapy to change the thoughts that encourage you to fear specific objects or environments
- Group therapy to help you overcome your fear of social situations and provide a support network within your rehabilitation program
- Holistic therapies like biofeedback, hypnosis or massage to reduce stress without drugs or alcohol
Recovering from a phobia and a substance use disorder may be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done. Phobias are often so deeply buried in the psyche that only intensive therapy can bring them to the surface. If you’ve been suppressing your fears with drugs or alcohol, you will also need counseling to help you handle cravings and deal with substance abuse triggers. An individualized rehabilitation program at Alta Mira can be your starting point for a positive, sober future that’s free from both addiction and unfounded fears.