Many people use alcohol to relieve their discomfort in social settings, but it can be challenging to set limits on social drinking to relieve social anxiety. Approximately 20 percent of individuals with social anxiety disorder also experience alcohol abuse or dependence, although this is a conservative estimate of actual numbers. The most common explanation is that people with social anxiety use alcohol to self–medicate their fears.
It’s important to note that according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), moderate alcohol use—up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people—causes few if any problems. They define one drink as a 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, a 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Alcohol use becomes problematic at much higher levels.
Individuals with social anxiety disorder prefer to avoid any situations that leave then feeling anxious, but when they must face those situations, alcohol use is one of their favored coping mechanisms. Researchers looking at the motivations behind drinking and social anxiety found that people who strongly expect alcohol to reduce their anxious feelings in social situations will most likely drink excessively. People with negative expectancies about alcohol's effects (that they may get drunk and appear foolish) probably will not consume alcohol because it increases their fear even more.
Does Drinking Work?
Alcohol is a powerful depressant that affects the central nervous system, therefore, it can alleviate some feelings of anxiety. Someone tense and nervous might feel more relaxed after having one or two drinks; they might be able to socialize more freely. However, it is important to remember that drinking won't ever cure the underlying social anxiety a person feels. And the reliance on alcohol as a Band-Aid solution can be dangerous, as drinking is addictive to many individuals and can result in alcohol–related dangers, such as automobile crashes, driving while intoxicated charges, date rape, and personal altercations.
Medical problems such as an increased risk of heart failure, stroke, and high blood pressure are also related to heavy drinking. Even if alcohol use doesn’t become problematic, leading to abuse or dependence, self-medicating with alcohol carries its own issues. Avoid drinking alcohol while taking prescription drugs for anxiety, as the combination can impair motor conditions and thinking, and even be lethal.
For those dealing with social anxiety, be aware of how you use alcohol. Are you drinking copious amounts with the intent to relax or are you fine with just one or two drinks? Furthermore, try setting limits on the length of time you will attend social events. Don’t depend on others for a ride home, and don’t become the designated driver since both scenarios could force you to stay longer than you may wish, resulting in feeling stuck and, consequently, leading to more drinking. Setting limits on your time in stressful social situations may allow you to venture out with a greater sense of control.