If you’re using alcohol to cope with social anxiety, you’re not alone. In the absence of a better coping mechanism, many people turn to alcohol to soothe social nerves. Although alcohol can provide temporary relief, it can actually increase anxiety in the long-term. I often speak with my patients about the connection between social anxiety and drinking, and share tools on how to overcome anxiety without drinking alcohol.
Learn more about why alcohol is a commonly used coping mechanism along with tips on how you can stop using alcohol for social anxiety below.
What is social anxiety disorder?
Many people experience some level of social anxiety from time to time without meeting the clinical criteria for social anxiety disorder (SAD). However, SAD isn’t uncommon; it affects approximately 2-13% of the US population¹. Social anxiety disorder is a mental health condition defined as an excessive fear of social situations.
For many individuals, social anxiety can prevent them from attending certain events or trying new experiences because of a persistent worry about what could occur. Whether you have social anxiety disorder, or struggle with high social anxiety on occasion, there are resources and support to help you overcome your social fears without leaning on substances. This process often involves taking a closer look at your relationship with alcohol, possibly seeking online alcohol treatment, and finding healthy coping mechanisms.
Why are social anxiety and alcohol use often connected?
Many people struggle with both social anxiety and unhealthy drinking. 20% of patients that suffer from SAD also suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) and, inversely, 23% of people with AUD also meet the criteria for SAD.² This correlation is partially due to the common belief that drinking alcohol can help reduce anxiety in social settings.
You may have heard alcohol referred to as a “social lubricant” or “liquid courage”. Why does alcohol have this calming effect? This phenomenon occurs because alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down the central nervous system. This can provide a temporary sense of relaxation.
Consuming alcohol also causes an immediate release of dopamine, which explains the “euphoric” sensation after having that first drink. The dopamine-driven association between alcohol and pleasure is part of the reason why people develop alcohol cravings. Because of these chemical interactions, drinking may soothe social anxiety at first. However, as I’ll dive into further, alcohol actually causes increased levels of anxiety once the initial effects wear off.
Does alcohol make social anxiety worse?
Alcohol can intensify psychological and physical symptoms of social anxiety disorder within just a few hours after drinking. Once the body starts to process alcohol, symptoms such as irritability, depression, and an increase in anxiety often occur. This is because alcohol disrupts levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, which can worsen anxiety. Anxiety symptoms that occur after drinking can last for several hours or even a full day after drinking. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as hangxiety.
Addressing anxiety while managing your drinking
Many people drink more alcohol to address this increased anxiety, often accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame after the initial effects of drinking wear off. This can create an unhealthy cycle and increase one’s risk of developing alcohol use disorder. The best way to break the cycle is to work towards changing your relationship with alcohol while building more sustainable coping skills for managing social anxiety. The good news is, the journey to overcoming social anxiety and changing your drinking habits can occur simultaneously, and are mutually beneficial. With time and support, you can find coping skills that help you manage social anxiety and reduce the role alcohol plays in your life.
How to address social anxiety without drinking
There are both preventative and immediate ways to soothe high social anxiety without alcohol. Developing self-care practices and seeking expert support are some of the best ways to build these skills.
Meditation, deep breathing, and stress management tools
Identifying ways to lower your baseline anxiety levels can help reduce the psychological and physical symptoms of social anxiety when unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations arise.
Mindfulness techniques like meditation and controlled breathing can help you slow your heart rate and listen to what your body and mind need. If you find yourself feeling anxious in a social situation, you can excuse yourself for five minutes and do a deep breathing exercise to check in with yourself. Other tools to help calm the nervous system include slowly counting from 1 to 10, observing the environment with all 5 senses, and more.
As you take this moment to ground yourself, you’ll notice that you’re able to return to a calmer state where you’re better able to assess your options. You can ask yourself questions like “what do I need right now?” or “do I need to leave this situation or is it within my tolerance level?” The power of breathwork is that it can allow you to feel safe enough to make a decision that feels right for you.
Journaling for stress management
Journaling is another tool for stress-relief. It’s a great way to notice patterns in your thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that might intensify social anxiety and brainstorm possible solutions. You can try stream of consciousness journaling where you narrate your anxiety in order to examine your discomfort and give it space to be experienced.
Or, if there’s a person who tends to activate your social anxiety, you could journal in a letter format to see what you would say to them if you had no fear of how they would respond. Whatever style works for you, getting your thoughts out on paper can help you release and reflect.
Therapy, support groups, and medication
Therapy is one of the most effective treatment options for SAD, and specialized alcohol therapy can address SAD and alcohol use disorder simultaneously. Therapists trained in treating SAD and AUD often use a modality called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT can be effective in reducing social anxiety and alcohol consumption over time by improving emotional regulation and assisting in the development of personal coping skills.
These strategies and tools can decrease both social phobia and the urge to drink. Another helpful resource is to join moderated alcohol support groups, where you can share and get guidance in a safe, anonymous environment. There are groups dedicated to practicing self-compassion or for managing anxiety while changing your relationship with alcohol.
As you navigate your sobriety or moderation journey, you can connect with a Monument physician, such as myself, to learn more about medication to stop drinking and therapy options available. If deemed appropriate, these medications can help you manage alcohol cravings as you develop healthier habits. There are also medications that are geared to treat social anxiety. Speaking with your primary care provider is the best way to determine if this treatment is right for you. You deserve better tools, and should feel empowered to explore any and all of your options.
Additional tips for socializing without alcohol:
While reducing your alcohol consumption can ultimately reduce anxiety, it can be challenging to navigate social situations without alcohol in early sobriety. There are several ways to set yourself up for success when socializing without drinking. Some of these suggestions include:
- Keep it small (at first): Practice not drinking in smaller social settings and with people you feel more comfortable with. This gives you an opportunity to practice new tools in a lower-pressure environment.
- De-stress beforehand: Partake in a relaxing activity or play your favorite song to de-stress before an event. Entering an event relaxed gives you the clarity to honor your boundaries.
- Bring a friend: Invite an accountability buddy to the event to keep you company and remind you of your goals. This can help ease socializing nerves and manage potential triggers if they arise.
- Practice saying no: At an event, it can be difficult to know how to say no to alcohol or to speak up about your boundaries, especially if you’re already feeling anxious. Preparing what you might say beforehand is a great way to feel more calm and confident in the moment.
- Avoid your phone: While your phone may feel like an easy distraction, it can actually increase social anxiety and potential triggers. Keeping off your phone can help you stay more present both with your goals and the people around you.
- Remember that you can always leave: Whether your anxiety is heightened or the social situation is too difficult to be in without drinking, it’s always okay to leave whenever you feel ready. Your needs come first.
- And more! (Check out this article for additional tips on socializing while sober)
A small amount of anxiety is normal when encountering a social situation. Accepting this can help reduce anxiety and allow you to set reasonable goals. While drinking may provide initial comfort to natural nerves, it can exacerbate anxiety in the long-term. It can also lead us to say and do things that don’t align with our truest selves. Without alcohol, you’re able to share your most authentic self with others and make genuine connections. What could be a more meaningful way to connect than that?
- SW Book. Alcohol Research and Health. “Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Use.” Accessed Nov. 20, 2021.
- National Library of Medicine. “The Relationship Between Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Use Disorders: A Critical Review, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16042994/” Accessed Nov. 20, 2021.
- Alcohol Rehab Guide. “Alcohol And Social Anxiety Disorder, https://www.alcoholrehabguide.org/resources/dual-diagnosis/social-anxiety-disorder/.” Accessed Nov. 20, 2021.
- Drinkaware. “Alcohol and anxiety, https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-and-anxiety.” Accessed Nov. 20, 2021.
- GoodRx. “How Are Anxiety Disorders and Alcohol Use Related?, https://www.goodrx.com/conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/how-are-anxiety-disorders-and-alcohol-use-related.” Accessed Nov. 20, 2021.
- Healthline. “Alcohol and Anxiety, https://www.healthline.com/health/alcohol-and-anxiety#living-with-anxiety.” Accessed Nov. 20, 2021.