Social anxiety is far more common than you think and, while it is a term that we often use quite loosely, it is also a diagnosable mental illness. In fact the Diagnostic Manual (DSM 5) describes social anxiety as being characterised by a strong and persistent fear in social and / or performance situations. Generally, those dealing with social anxiety worry about what other people may think of them – believing that others will think negatively of them because of the things they say, the way they look or the things they do.
Sufferers of social anxiety also fear that their anxiety will show in such a way that it will be humiliating. It becomes a bit of a vicious cycle that gets exacerbated by the fear of the anxiety itself. One can see how this condition can be debilitating and severe.
It is not surprising that almost 30% of people diagnosed with social anxiety disorder also abuse alcohol.
Everyone needs friends and social support. When your relationships, and even your career, are being jeopardised because of your anxiety it is easy to turn to anything that can help you feel better. Alcohol is socially acceptable and we all know how wonderfully it works in relaxing the nerves and dropping the inhibitions a bit. No small wonder that those with social anxiety tend to use it to relax into social situations and lose some of their fear. But problem drinking is an insidious process that occurs slowly, over time and in such a way that the anxious drinker is not even aware of it. Before you know it you have developed an alcohol dependency or addiction and the problem is simply compounded, not resolved.
People struggling with social anxiety are better off seeking professional assistance in the form of counselling to find adaptive ways of coping with their anxiety. Learning strategies to overcome the fear, rather than numbing it with alcohol (or other drugs) is a long lasting resolution to the problem.
Therapeutic strategies used by counsellors include cognitive-behavioural therapy, which is aimed at changing negative thoughts and irrational perceptions in order to change behaviour. Other ways of coping with social anxiety include:
Identifying the source of the anxiety
Often our anxiety in social situations stems for a negative childhood event, while other times it stems from negative self-esteem. Establishing the root cause for the anxiety often helps in understanding it and gaining some control over it.
Learn Breathing exercises
Learning to relax in anxiety provoking situations empowers you to gain control over the anxiety symptoms such as trembling hands, stuttering, trembling voice and more. Once you have control over these signs, you will gain some confidence in the situation.
Become aware of your self-talk
Perhaps you are saying things like “everyone will think I’m stupid” or “I have nothing clever to say” – these negative messages only serve to strengthen the anxiety.
Learn some positive affirmations
Start replacing the old negative thoughts with some positive affirmations such as “I have lots to contribute to this friendship” or “I do have conversational skills and know that I have a lot to talk about”
Enlist some support
Especially in new situations, get a supportive friend to come with you to new social situations. Having someone familiar around makes it a lot easier to relax.
Use the counselling space to role play and rehearse how you can deal with people in new social situations. Perhaps, practicing a greeting will help you gain confidence in your ability to open up a conversation with someone new. Therapy is also a great space to explore and challenge the negative thoughts and perceptions that form the basis of your anxiety.
So while the temptation is great to make use of alcohol or other drugs to cope with anxiety in new social situations, the effects are often more damaging than helpful. Finding effective and healthy ways of coping with social anxiety will lead to more satisfying relationships and, possibly, long term management of the disorder.