One of the most common coping mechanisms for social anxiety, and stress in general, is drinking. While alcohol might carry some legitimate benefits, there are plenty of reasons why relying on it is a bad idea. Read on to learn why using alcohol to cope with social anxiety is risky and some healthy alternatives that you can employ instead.
Does Alcohol Help With Social Anxiety?
There are a lot of people for whom the mere thought of mingling with strangers or speaking in a group setting causes them to break out into a cold sweat. Social anxiety is a remarkably prevalent mental disorder and it’s estimated that 12% of the entire population have experienced it at some point in their lives. In today’s modern society, however, these situations are difficult to avoid as we go about navigating social, professional, and romantic responsibilities. As a result, many who struggle with social anxiety turn to external means to power through their discomfort, i.e. drugs and alcohol.
Technically, yes alcohol can help. Alcohol interacts with the brain in multiple ways that can, directly and indirectly, counteract or lessen the thoughts, fears, and stresses associated with social anxiety. Alcohol is what’s known as a ‘social lubricant’ which studies have shown can improve mood, minimize negative emotions, and increase the likelihood of social bonding (there’s a reason why one of alcohol’s nicknames is “liquid courage”).
However, though alcohol’s psychoactive effects can be beneficial, relying on a mind-altering substance to function in any capacity is never a good idea.
The Risks of Relying on Alcohol
Many who suffer from social anxiety end up taking this dependence too far. It is estimated that about a fifth of these individuals also suffers from alcohol addiction. These co-occurring disorders can exacerbate one another, leading individuals down a vicious and debilitating cycle. In fact, alcohol can easily make things worse. Excessive alcohol consumption can cause lasting neurochemical imbalances. This can result in the development of mild or severe mental illnesses such as depression or psychosis.
Alternatives to Alcohol for Social Anxiety
If you’re looking for a way to deal with social anxiety that doesn’t involve drugs and the risk of developing a substance use disorder, here are four practical and healthy tips that can make social interactions easier to bear.
1. Buy a new outfit
Social anxiety isn’t a phobia of people or social situations, but rather how one is perceived by others. And since this condition is one that’s closely linked to self-esteem, doing things that boost your own self-image can be helpful. The thrill of wearing a new outfit (especially one you know you look great in) can put you in a better, more confident headspace for your upcoming obligation. Conversely, if wearing something new around people invokes even more anxiety, having a few tried-and-true outfits to rely on can help establish a sense of control in unfamiliar situations.
2. Give compliments
In Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People, one of the most influential books of all time, he repeatedly emphasizes that people inherently like others who make them feel good. A sincere compliment not only starts off your interactions on a positive note but also takes the focus (a.k.a. pressure) off yourself. Get others to talk about themselves and you can buy yourself some valuable time to adjust. This way you’ll feel more comfortable accepting compliments and questions when it comes your turn to speak.
3. Find a power pose
Posing isn’t just for models. Certain stances can instantly boost confidence, or at least, make you appear more confident. Body language is an important aspect of nonverbal communication that clues us into how people are really feeling (despite what they might be saying), but it also works in the other direction, and the way we carry ourselves can have a significant impact on our own feelings. How can the way you sit, stand, or walk can have such a drastic impact? A Harvard University study shows that certain stances actually affect body chemistry, decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone) and increasing testosterone.
4. Keep something in your hand at all times
If you’ve ever had to navigate a social setting while sober, you’re likely already quite familiar with this technique. Having a drink or something else in your hand can help subvert the awkwardness of being questioned as to “why aren’t you drinking?”. In the case of social anxiety, holding a glass of water or a plate of food gives you something to do when you feel awkward or don’t know what to say. Bonus, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, you can excuse yourself under the guise of refilling your refreshments.
Alcohol & Anxiety Don’t Mix
There’s no easy cure for social anxiety. While alcohol and other drugs might numb the immediate sense of stress or fear associated with interacting with others, relying on these substances can make things far worse in the long run. The best course of action is to seek help in the form of therapy or counseling (it’s a mental illness, after all). Talking with a professional can help you identify the source of your anxiety as well as better coping mechanisms for dealing with social situations.
If you normally rely on alcohol to relax and are finding it difficult to cut back, you might have a drinking problem. Learn more about what alcohol addiction looks like and what you should do about it. Should you decide to seek treatment, you would likely benefit most from a dual enrollment addiction treatment program that specifically targets the intersection of addiction and mental illnesses like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.