One of alcohol’s many names is “liquid courage,” which won’t come as a surprise to anybody who relies on it to steady their nerves at a work dinner or shed their inhibitions at a party.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 20% of people dealing with a social anxiety disorder also suffer from some form of alcohol abuse or dependence.
While drinking to reduce social anxiety might seem like the right solution at the moment, turning to the substance can quickly turn sour. The reality is that though alcohol is a quick and effective fix, it is also temporary and dangerous.
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Alcohol and Anxiety Don’t Mix
Studies have shown a connection between alcohol and anxiety on a molecular level. Research carried out by the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that excessive drinking can lead to the rewiring of the brain, which increases the risk of developing anxiety issues.
“Alcohol releases neurotransmitters in the brain that induce temporary pleasure, but over time can change brain activity and inhibit the brain’s natural ability to produce these neurotransmitters and ultimately leave the individual feeling more anxious,” explains Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, co-founder of NYC-based Family Addiction Specialist. “When the temporary pleasurable effects of alcohol subside, feelings of anxiety can spike—this is known as ‘alcohol-induced anxiety.’”
Drinking to ease social anxiety can lead to drinking more often and in larger quantities, adds Daniel Epstein, LPC, LMHC, director of client services at The Berman Center in Atlanta, GA.
“This can result in worsened intoxication and all of the consequences that accompany, including impaired decision making, judgment, inhibitions, etc,” he says.
And then there’s the next-day comedown when the alcohol leaves your body, which can have lasting repercussions.
“The reality is that alcohol is a depressant and will leave individuals with a lower mood in the long-term. As such, individuals who regularly consume alcohol may end up feeling depressed, and it can subsequently have a negative impact on social life and be detrimental to general wellbeing,” says Sternlicht.
Using Alcohol to Engage Socially Can Become a Need, Rather Than a Want
You don’t need to have an official diagnosis of social anxiety disorder to turn to booze when you feel awkward, shy, or simply not quite “yourself” during social occasions. The problem starts when using alcohol to engage socially becomes more of a need than a want. This can manifest as using alcohol before engaging socially as well as during social engagements, and it might become the go-to stress-reliever for other common day anxieties and stressors that don’t involve social settings. This is because alcohol becomes associated with stress reduction, Sternlicht explains.
Though you might use alcohol to mitigate anxiety, it’s important to realize that anxiety is also an alcohol withdrawal symptom. Over time, the overuse of alcohol causes a vicious cycle. You drink to ease the anxiety, only to experience more anxiety once the alcohol starts to leave your system, and then you turn to alcohol again.
If you’re unable to socialize without alcohol, are fearful of sober social engagement, or become preoccupied with needing a drink in order to engage socially, you might want to look closely at your relationship with alcohol, Sternlicht says.
“It may also be problematic if you begin to consume alcohol prior to social engagements in order to reduce anxiety and also if you find yourself drinking more than intended during social situations,” he adds. “When engaging socially the primary focus should be on socializing, not on drinking.”
The Thin Line Between Social Drinking and Problem Drinking
Social drinking can morph into problem drinking under certain circumstances, which is why it’s important to keep an eye on your relationship with alcohol.
“The first steps to addressing any issue are awareness of the problem and a desire to address it,” Sternlicht says. “If you find yourself dependent on alcohol to get through social engagements then your relationship with alcohol is something to take a closer look at.”
There are other signs of alcohol misuse (or alcohol use disorder) to keep in mind when questioning your relationship with alcohol.
- Increase in tolerance
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms
- Continued alcohol use despite adverse consequences that have resulted from alcohol
- Loss of interest in relationships or social and leisure activities
It’s important, to be honest with yourself and mindful of your relationship with drinking.
Ditching Your Social Lubricant
The long-held belief that alcohol is a “social lubricant” will never be completely eradicated, but that doesn’t mean you can’t follow your own path. So if you’re hosting a social event, think about the kind of experience you’d like to have without alcohol. You can go for the alcohol-free option where possible. Meeting friends at a coffee shop instead of a bar or gathering with family at a park rather than a restaurant are options to consider.
If it’s someone else’s event you’re going to, the key is to plan ahead, Epstein says. Commit to when you want to get there, how long you’ll stay for, and how much you will or won’t drink.
“If you are focused on abstinence from alcohol, having social/sober support is correlated with better outcomes,” he adds.
Of course, alcohol is only one part of the problem. If you don’t drink to relieve your social anxiety, how do you get through that intimidating work party or boozy wedding? This requires some homework, Sternlicht says.
By educating yourself on the symptoms of social anxiety, as well as the effects of alcohol on mental health, you’ll be better able to identify your social anxiety, figure out what triggers it, and work towards symptom relief in a healthy way. Sternlicht recommends trying different coping mechanisms—meditation, mindfulness, or journaling about your social fears—until you find what works best for you.
Also, don’t go anywhere without an exit plan. If your symptoms of social anxiety become overwhelming during a social engagement, knowing you have a plan to leave can be a huge relief.
“Consider what it is that alcohol gives you in social settings that you can’t get sober,” Sternlicht says.
For instance, if alcohol really is your “liquid courage,” try to work towards building your confidence in other ways, like engaging in a new hobby, exercising, or building your career. Confidence-building isn’t a guaranteed way to alleviate all anxiety in social settings, but it will help you become more comfortable just being yourself.
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Remember, help is out there if you don’t feel you can address your anxiety or alcohol misuse symptoms alone. It might be helpful to explore your relationship with alcohol with an addiction specialist and address underlying social anxieties with a mental health professional. Tempest membership is also here for you to provide care and community support.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one therapeutic modality that has proven to be effective in working through anxiety as well as substance misuse by addressing thoughts, feelings, and associated behaviors,” Sternlicht says.
We’ve come a long way in reducing stigma in relation to mental health issues like social anxiety as well as alcohol misuse, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
“It all starts with personal responsibility,” Sternlicht says. “Take care of yourself first and allow yourself to be vulnerable and have difficult conversations with the right people at the right time to normalize these conversations surrounding mental health.”