Drinking and Social Anxiety

by Kyle MacDonald

drinking and social anxiety

Drinking and social anxiety have a long history together. About 1 in 5 people who have social anxiety will have experienced a problem with their drinking at some point. At least that’s what the research tells us.

That doesn’t mean that they are “alcoholics”, just that they likely drink more than is good for them and have trouble stopping or changing their drinking habits. It probably also means that they have had to drink more over time to get the same effect.

I worked in addiction services for a number of years, and often what was ‘behind’ people’s struggle with alcohol was an undiagnosed problem with social anxiety. And this makes sense; alcohol is actually a really effective short-term chemical solution to anxiety.

Alcohol is a mild system depressant, it slows down our physical functioning and in doing so it does the same thing as many medications for anxiety, it calms us physically.

No surprise here right? For many thousands of years humans have used alcohol to socialize and it has been dubbed a “social lubricant”.

But it can lead to problems, especially if it is the only way you have of managing social situations. The most obvious of course is physical health.

So how much is too much? Well the health advice is to drink moderately, defined as two drinks per day for a man, or one drink per day for a woman, where a drink is defined as 12 fl.oz of beer, 5 fl.oz of wine or 1.5 fl.oz of spirits. Any more than 5 drinks for a man, or four for a woman in less than two hours, is defined as binge drinking and is the most common drinking pattern in the USA and also the most harmful.

So what should you do if you drink to manage social anxiety? Well first if you think you have a really serious problem with drinking you will likely need specialized help. But if not here are some simple things to try:

  • Count your drinks. If you don’t know exactly how much you drink, you probably should. Keep track of how many drinks you consume in a week. If you’re at a bar, keep track on your phone or keep the receipts or the cheque. If you’re at home, keep the empties on the kitchen bench, or at a party put the bottle caps in your pocket. And never let people fill your glass until you’ve finished.
  • SLOW DOWN. If you’re anxious and you’re drinking, the tendency is to drink quickly. Take your time and taste the drink. Another good tip is to drink a glass of water in between each alcoholic drink.
  • Take a night off. If you really want to challenge yourself, go out without drinking. Volunteer to drive, to help your commitment. Or if that’s too hard, delay your drinking by committing to being at the party or event for 30 minutes before having the first drink.
  • Above all make sure you have at least two nights off drinking any alcohol every week. Your liver will thank you!

Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist who specialised in the treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder. He blogs regularly and is currently developing an online treatment program for Social Anxiety Disorder and shyness. For more see: www.overcomingsocialanxiety.com

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