Does Social Anxiety Increase Your Chances of Alcohol Abuse?

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is an underdiagnosed condition that affects millions of people. Many who have it don’t get the help they need, which leaves them vulnerable to alcohol abuse should they resort to self-medicating behavior. Experiencing persistent social anxiety can increase a person’s odds of developing an alcohol use disorder. That is why a trained addiction treatment specialist should evaluate men and women with SAD who’ve frequently been drinking.

The social anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse statistics are startling. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), about 20 percent of people who’ve been diagnosed with this disorder have had issues with alcohol abuse at some point in their lives.

The connection between social anxiety disorder and alcohol addiction is disturbing, and it should act as a warning to everyone who is attempting to cope with their social anxiety by regularly consuming alcohol.

Have you been using alcohol as a way to manage your social anxiety symptoms? If so, you should know this is hazardous behavior that can threaten your health and safety if it continues.

Why Individuals With Social Anxiety Turn to Alcohol

Men and women with social anxiety disorder deal with two related issues. The first is that they feel tremendous stress in social situations, of a type that causes them to experience a range of debilitating and unpleasant physical and mental sensations. They may experience these symptoms in advance of expected social encounters as well (this is known as anticipatory anxiety).

The second issue for SAD sufferers is that their anxiety affects their social performance. Individuals who experience social anxiety feel incredibly uncomfortable in social situations, to the point that they have trouble thinking of what to say. They feel reluctant to express their true emotions because they fear being judged or rejected. They struggle to cope in social environments that leave them feeling overwhelmed and out of their element.

A related problem is that people with social anxiety usually possess underdeveloped social and communication skills. This makes socializing in any situation more difficult, creating obstacles that persist even when the anxiety is more manageable (as it will be when those with social anxiety are around people they know well).

Given the immense challenges they face, it isn’t too surprising that many people with social anxiety end up dependent on alcohol. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol can induce feelings of relaxation while lowering social inhibitions. This is what men and women with social anxiety need most of all, and they may return to alcohol again and again after the first time they experience its relaxing effects.

If you’ve been drinking to ease your social anxiety, you undoubtedly appreciated its impact at the beginning. But if this behavior has been going on for a while, you’ve likely noticed that alcohol’s impact on your anxiety has decreased over time. This is a result of your brain’s growing tolerance for alcohol’s effects.

Ideally, this discovery should have been enough to make you abandon alcohol as a “cure” for social anxiety. But if you responded to this development by increasing your alcohol consumption to compensate for its weaker effects, you may be well on your way to developing a serious addiction to alcohol—if you haven’t developed one already.

The Self-Medicating Trap

No one who starts drinking alcohol expects to become addicted. Those who drink carefully and responsibly can avoid that terrible contingency. The difficulty for men and women with social anxiety is that the conditions that motivate their continued alcohol use are not going to get better on their own. Without treatment, social anxiety will disrupt their lives now and in the future. This creates fertile ground for an alcohol abuse problem to develop if the person with social anxiety lets their drinking become a regular habit.

It’s very important to realize that long-term, self-medicating behavior is seldom intentional. While people who consume alcohol will often talk about how it helps them relax, they still won’t perceive their behavior in medical terms. They see it instead as an effective method for mood management, with temporary effects that can make them feel less jittery and more empowered. They think of their choices strictly from a short-term perspective, as a coping mechanism, they’ve used today but may not use again tomorrow or anytime soon.

But once people start using alcohol specifically for its mind-altering effects, they’ve set a trap for themselves that can be difficult to escape. Their denial about their dependency only reinforces the problem, as it is impossible to break free from an addiction that you refuse to see and acknowledge.

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How You Can Tell if Your Drinking is Out of Control

Your slide into alcohol dependency (if it occurs) will be gradual, enough so that you may have no idea what is happening. You may not perceive the true nature of your drinking problem, even when it’s very obvious to the people who know you well.

So how can you be sure that your alcohol use has escalated past the danger point? Some of the clearest signs of a rapidly developing alcohol dependency include:

  • Consuming alcohol daily, or at least four times a week
  • Frequent drinking to intoxication, which may be either intended or unintended
  • Drinking for longer periods of time than planned, as if you have no control over your behavior
  • Consuming alcohol at the same time of the day on a regular basis
  • Feeling shame or guilt about your drinking or about your behavior while intoxicated
  • Receiving frequent warnings from loved ones about your issues with alcohol
  • Experiencing physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal (shaky hands, cravings, sweating, restlessness, insomnia, etc.)

If these signs apply to you, please stop drinking immediately and take stock of your situation. Even a slightly more realistic self-assessment can be enough to help you see the truth, which is something you must do before you are indeed ready to seek a diagnosis from a licensed and trained addiction specialist.

The Importance of Treatment for Social Anxiety and Alcohol Addiction

It is standard to recommend dual diagnosis treatment for those who have social anxiety disorder and alcohol addiction. A comprehensive inpatient treatment program that addresses both conditions simultaneously can be highly effective if administered by trained and experienced professionals who’ve developed and administered dual diagnosis treatment plans before.

There is one complication, however. The nature of social anxiety disorder is such that those who have it generally feel uncomfortable around people they don’t know. This can be even more of a problem if those people are regarded as authority figures, and professional healers and counselors generally are. Consequently, men and women with social anxiety disorder may be highly reluctant to seek treatment, even if they know they have a problem.

Fortunately, mental health professionals who’ve worked with socially anxious clients understand very well the challenges associated with this pervasive and life-altering disorder. These professionals will make an extraordinary effort to make these clients feel comfortable while creating a peaceful and soothing treatment environment. They will encourage the involvement of family members in their loved ones’ treatment programs, knowing that its much easier for the socially anxious to open up and express themselves honestly if they have a reliable support system to encourage them and make them feel safe.

In counseling sessions and during other consultations, the best professionals are always highly respectful of the needs and preferences of men and women with social anxiety disorder. They never push their clients to reveal more than they’d like to. They will invest as much time as necessary to build bonds of trust that can help the socially anxious person feel accepted, acknowledged, and at ease.

If you or someone you love is experiencing struggles with social anxiety and alcohol addiction, it is urgent that you seek help as quickly as possible. You should search for licensed addiction treatment facilities that have had experience working with socially anxious clients, and you should choose a facility that can reassure you they understand the unique difficulties people with SAD face and will customize their approach to treatment accordingly.