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To The People Who Mistake My Social Anxiety For Rudeness: Here’s What’s Really Happening

One of my friends recently told me that she thought I hated her when we first met. Hate?! That’s a strong word, I thought to myself. I laughed it off with her in the moment, but later that evening, I anxiously thought her comment over. I know I don’t give the most amicable first impression, but I never thought of myself as standoffish. After talking it over with some close friends and family (and a therapist), though, I learned that my anxious habits can make me appear distant, unattached, and even inhospitable at times.

I’ve got social anxiety, and the area I struggle most with is meeting people for the first time. I build up the moment in my head to an Olympic degree and convince myself that this stranger is going to witness all my shortcomings right off the bat — and immediately not like me as a result. I put up my defenses because I don’t want to get hurt first. Unfortunately, the insecurity, self-doubt, and low self-esteem that my anxiety brings to the surface translates easily into indifference. At parties, people think I’m impolite or, worse, tedious.

I’d like to set the record straight, because I think there are a lot of other anxiety-ridden people out there who deal with the same misunderstandings. Here’s what’s actually happening when my anxiety makes me seem unfriendly.

If I’m Not Very Friendly When We First Meet, It’s Only Because I’m Very Insecure

Anxiety and insecurity go together like macaroni and cheese. When there’s a lot of anxiety on our shoulders, we automatically feel scared that people will judge us for everything, from what we wear to how our hair smells.

I only realized this in the past year, but my overwhelming anxiety can cause me to be quite cold to people when we’re first introduced. All I can think about is all the things they won’t like about me — the high-pitched sound of my voice, my handshake being too firm, my annoying laugh. So when we meet for the first time and I’m not a fountain of smiles, please understand that I’m not blowing you off. I’m just putting up a defense mechanism.

I Have A Hard Time Sharing Personal Information About Myself With Strangers

I’ve been at dinners where multiple people are meeting for the first time, willingly exchanging details about their lives with one another. They talk about their jobs, their love lives, and their recent home renovations. I wish I could easily offer up that information myself, but my anxiety often chokes me up. It may seem like I don’t want to participate in the conversation, but it’s not that I don’t want to. It’s just that I’m afraid to open up, especially to people I don’t know.

It all stems from my fear of intimacy, which is a common side effect of anxiety. So don’t be alarmed if you see me freeze up or clumsily exit the room when someone starts asking me personal questions. I know they’re just trying to be nice, and that they’re only asking the most basic things, but if I’m not feel fully prepared for it, I sometimes feel the need to remove myself.

If I Don’t Laugh, It’s Probably Not Because I Don’t Think You’re Funny

Laughing is a great way to break the ice, but if I’m feeling tightly wound from all the nerves, I might miss out on a few of the jokes that are being tossed around. Because of my social anxiety, I get so freaked out that I’ll say or do the wrong thing that I often fall out of the present moment and fail to catch onto the surrounding humor. I might also feel so uncomfortable with everything that’s happening that I don’t feel like I have permission to laugh with abandon. It doesn’t mean you’re not funny (you probably are very funny, in fact), and it doesn’t mean I’m a poor sport. I’m just trying to play my cards right so I don’t make a fool out of myself.

If I Back Out Of Plans At The Last Minute, It Doesn’t Mean I Don’t Care

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A devastatingly common symptom of social anxiety is refusing to show up to certain events because you’re afraid to be the center of attention, or you’re just not feeling strong enough to face a group of people. I’ve had to cancel numerous dinners and get-togethers because my anxiety had other ideas in mind. It may sound ridiculous to people who have never suffered from a mental illness, but it can feel impossible to put eye shadow on and go meet people in a crowded bar when you’re feeling emotionally exhausted. No matter how far in advance I’ve made the plans, there simply comes a time when I hit a wall, and my time is better spent at home, eating a warm meal and enjoying the silence.

When I’m Awkward With Your Friends, It’s Because I’m Nervous They Won’t Like Me

Meeting my friends’ friends is one of the most stressful things on the planet. It’s almost as bad as all those standardized tests I had to take in high school. I love my friends, so I want the people in their life to take a liking to me. But you know by now that I’m not great with first impressions, so I may be a little awkward with your crew when we’re introduced for the first time.

My anxiety makes me feel like I have to live up to a lot of expectations, particularly if these are people who mean a lot to my friends. I make myself believe I have to put my best foot forward, which puts unnecessary pressure on me. In turn, I get really jumpy and I doubt myself. Don’t be surprised if I say a few awkward things or come off as reserved.

If I’m Quiet, It’s Not Because I’m Mad At You

Talking, in general, is a difficult task when anxiety hits you hard. When I feel triggered, the first thing I do is shut down. I don’t want to speak to anyone. I don’t have the energy to carry on small talk. I wish people would understand that, so if they happen to approach me when I’m internally battling anxiety, they would know that my silence doesn’t reflect on them at all. Rather, it’s a product of the hectic reel of thoughts in my head. Being quiet and steering clear of social interactions just feels like the only way to handle the madness.

Please be understanding when I just don’t have very much to say in a conversation. Let me take care of myself and get back on track, and then I’m sure I’ll be back to my chatty self. Eventually. Maybe.

15 Secrets of ‘Rude’ People With Anxiety

First impressions are hard. Most of us have been in a social situation where we’ve felt we didn’t come off in the way we wanted to. Maybe we were more reserved than we wanted to be, or maybe we just couldn’t stop talking, for fear of letting an awkward silence hang in the air. For people who live with anxiety, scenarios like this can feel all too real.

Sometimes, what looks like being standoffish and “stuck up,” is really just a coping technique to mask the anxiety within. So if someone you know seems “rude” in social situations, don’t automatically assume they’re doing it on purpose — there could be a reason why.

We wanted to know what people with anxiety had to say about this, so we asked people who have come off as “rude” due to anxiety from our Mighty community to share one thing they wish others understood about them.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “When I’m nervous, I babble. I talk nonstop, because awkward silences make my anxiety even worse. I think I’m boring the person, they think I’m annoying, they don’t want to talk to me. I cut off people sometimes accidentally when I’m overexcited or nervous and people have taken it as if I don’t care what they have to say. I apologize profusely when I do it and explain I don’t mean to, but lots of people don’t accept that. They just think I talk because I want to hear what I have to say, and don’t care what they do. It hurts a lot because people don’t realize I’m only doing it to keep from internally freaking out.” — Sunshine M.

2. “Sometimes I don’t join in the conversation because even though I can hear voices having the conversation, I have no idea of the content. My brain is too busy trying to process all the conversations in the room, my surroundings, the people there and trying to work out whether it’s a safe environment and what these people think about me.” — Amy M.

3. “Sometimes I just can’t relate, so I don’t reply. It’s not being rude, I just fail to understand. But I want to.” — Jace P.

4. “Sometimes I have what seems like a burst of anger and people think I have anger issues and that I’m being rude to people. I’m actually having anxiety and getting overwhelmed and it comes out as frustration and anger. I wish when it happened those close to me would take a minute to ask if I’m OK and what they can do for me instead of getting annoyed or saying I have anger issues. I hate that people think I’m rude to others when really, I just have anxiety.” — Sarah A.

5. “My ‘rudeness’ is actually a defense mechanism because I have anxiety about trying to interact with people and feeling I don’t have anything to offer. I guess I get defensive, standoffish and aloof, but I really want to participate…” — Melinda B.

6. “People think I’m being rude when I have my phone in my hands constantly or when I look down at my hands and fiddle with my rings instead of looking at them when they’re talking. I’m not trying to be rude, I just can’t cope in a lot of social situations, and it’s either do little things like I do or have a panic attack which would be worse. I do apologize for coming across as rude, but I’m really just trying to cope by doing what I know works for me.” — Monnie M.

7. “Groups terrify me. If I’m in a group and sitting silently, it doesn’t mean I don’t care. I’m listening and caring and participating, but it’s too terrifying for me to speak up in a group sometimes.” — Alyssa F.

8. “My lack of responses don’t mean I am uninterested. I just worry I may have word vomit and be picked apart for something I accidentally mispronounced or because my voice shakes… I’m forever worried I am offending everyone and bothering them with my existence.” — Shelby G.

9. “I have a hard time making small talk. When I do engage, I often overanalyze the conversation and think of things I should have said and even become embarrassed about the whole interaction. Sometimes it’s just easier to keep quiet. High anxiety can also lead to impulsive reactions from me, then that also leads to deep regret.” — Amanda L.

10. “Anytime I stick by the side of who I’m with, I’m seen as clingy and disrespectful. I don’t mean to be, I’m just shy and try to stay with people I know.” — Ariah S.

11. “I don’t know how to connect with strangers. I don’t know what I can trust about what they do or say. I don’t know how to react to the conversation. So I become monotoned and unexpressive to avoid saying or doing the wrong things. I’m very tense in those situations because I’m scared of making the other person mad. But once I get to know them, I start to relax and I can finally be myself. I’m not as cold-hearted as I initially seem.” — Billi-Jo W.

12. “I try to joke with other people and I end up sounding bossy or bitchy or offensive. There are too many examples I could give.” — Carolyn M.

13. “When I ‘check out,’ it’s not because I’m trying to tune you out. I have no control over it, and I hate it. It can be really scary to not feel connected to yourself, and it’s worse when you can still recognize the way people are looking at you when they can notice it. I can be aware of what is going on, but my body is in robot mode and my mind is either stuck inside myself or somewhere else entirely. If I am just off in the corner quietly watching everyone, it’s because I am puzzled at the ease in which everyone else can socialize. I’m struggling to stay present and just be comfortable in my own skin, and everyone else is just able to enjoy the moment. I’m not judging you, I am admiring you. I wish I could be like you.” — Sierra S.

14. “I’ve had this feedback at work. My response has been due to the sheer worry, panic and flapping going on inside my head. I wish others could understand that for someone like me, their ‘simple request’ can actually be a massive thing which triggers a fast spiral in my head. No amount of my ex-boss telling me ‘not to worry’ or ‘to deal with my mind talk’ would help.” — Kelly E.

15. “I hate small talk. I dislike a lot of chatter in general, but small talk is the worst. If you try to start up a conversation with me and I don’t know you, I’m not going to respond more than a word or two if I can help it. I’ve been told many times I come across as rude or stuck up, but that’s not the case. I’m just extremely anxious about talking to people, and I’m always worried I’m going to say the wrong thing and offend someone.” — Haley B.

Can you relate?

Thinkstock photo via Ralwel.

How Social Anxiety Makes My Life Difficult

Social anxiety makes adulting hard!

Stephen AnthonyFollow Apr 2, 2019 · 5 min read

All the small aspects of living become a struggle. One of the biggest hurdles for me is getting out the door and introducing myself to the world.

The world I see when I’m peering out the window, like a prisoner in my own home. A place where I’m comfortable and safe. The place I long to be when I’m out.

There’s an internal battle that goes on in my mind. Two parts, the one that’s anxious and frightened to experience life and people. The other that uses common sense to persuade me to venture out. Either can win the argument.

Good day, when common sense wins. Bad day when anxiety wins.

Mundane Things Can Be The Most Difficult!

The energy required to push me to complete mundane simple life tasks is exhausting. Shopping is like an obstacle course of fear and awkwardness. You may have to ask for something. May see someone you know and need to hide down the other aisle. Or you have to smile and be polite at the checkout.

These are things that can make your heart race and make you want to escape!

When I’m forced into a situation where I have to converse with people I put on a facade. It’s not the real me.

The real me would rather not say a word not even a hello. The real me would seem rude and disinterested. Instead, I put on an act. Not a show-stealing act where I have the personality of an extrovert. An act of someone that can say hello and at a push can string a sentence together.

That is all you need to go through the motions of life.

The downside with putting up a front is that it can be tiring over time. A one hour chat with a real live person can exhaust me for the rest of the day. I would need to recover in bed or veg out in front of the TV until my energy reserves have built back up.

“When all by myself, I can think of all kinds of clever remarks, quick comebacks to what no one said, and flashes of witty sociability with nobody. But all of this vanishes when I face someone in the flesh: I lose my intelligence, I can no longer speak, and after half an hour I just feel tired. Talking to people makes me feel like sleeping. Only my ghostly and imaginary friends, only the conversations I have in my dreams, are genuinely real and substantial.”
― Fernando Pessoa

Alcohol is The Cure For Most Ailments!

Photo by Carlos Blanco at Unsplash

The only time this does not apply is if there is a drink involved. After quite a few drinks I become confident, outgoing and even at times the life and soul of the party. To the point where you can’t shut me up. Its as if I am making up for all the times where I’m quiet and don’t speak. The trouble with all this is it can get to the stage where I become a complete loon. The one that needs persuading it’s late and time to go home. Always the last one to leave a party.

Of course the next day I am usually mortified by my antics the night before. No, I would rather not see pictures and videos of me dancing around like an idiot, thank you. The embarrassment and shame become overwhelming.

The promises to my self that I won’t go that far again, promises that are never kept!

My friend remarked I am a different person when I’ve had a drink. Much more confident and funny. He said its a shame I can’t be like that all the time. The trouble with that idea is it requires me to become an alcoholic. Not the ideal solution in my eyes. The things people say!

Fear of Speaking Out Loud.

Most days I spend keeping my mouth shut for fear of saying something stupid. Fear of looking like a complete idiot. Some days are worse than others. Now and again I will find the courage to say what’s on my mind. They usually go well and I don’t seem like a fool. Usually, because I know about the topic that’s people are discussing. But there are also times when I am well versed in the conversation that is being had.

But I stay quiet and observe from the sidelines.

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

The Eyes of Judgement Bear Upon Me!

Source: Unsplash

On the worst days walking down the high street can be unbearable. People all around me staring at me and judging me. Some even sniggering at me behind my back, pointing and laughing! The reality is it’s not true, but that is what is going through my mind at the time. Makes me feel like running home to where its safe and nobody is watching me.

All these things are areas I try to work on every minute of the day. I have to talk myself down and inject common sense into my brain.

Its all very tiring but that is the way it is so I have to keep trying to improve and move forward. All I need is a success in something and that will boost my confidence and make things a little easier to cope with.

Who knows if that would work? I am not sure but it is something to strive for. A goal to keep my mind occupied. The one way to control my social anxiety and stop it from making life so difficult.

“I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.”
― Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

This is a small aspect of how social anxiety makes my life difficult. If you enjoyed reading this then take a look at my other stories about social anxiety.

Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse

At around the age of 10, I became aware that I was different. I felt intense social anxiety. I had no skills to use to interact socially with my peers. I was quiet and blended into the walls. I didn’t trust my perceptions and it took many years before I could admit, much less say aloud, how I felt.

These are the words of Cynthia Kipp, who has social anxiety disorder.

My family didn’t seem to pay too much attention to my phobia. I did what was expected as a “good” girl.

Cynthia’s tumultuous childhood – her father was abusive and suffered from schizophrenia – coupled with social anxiety led to difficult teenage years. She didn’t feel part of any group of friends, and she started drinking to alleviate her anxiety around her peers.

But her drinking soon became as big of a problem as her anxiety, if not bigger.

About 15 million U.S. adults, or 7 percent of the population, have social anxiety disorder in any given year. And it isn’t unusual for people with social anxiety disorder – or other anxiety disorders – to drink excessively to cope with symptoms or try to escape them.
Murray Stein, MD, MPH, and John Walker, PhD, write in Triumph Over Shyness: Conquering Social Anxiety Disorder that social anxiety disorder “frequently travels in the company of other emotional difficulties” such as alcohol or drug abuse, depression, and other anxiety disorders.

Symptoms

My drinking was self-destructive, and that compounded my low self-esteem.

About 20 percent of people with social anxiety disorder also suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, and a recent study found that the two disorders have a stronger connection among women.
Although alcohol can temporarily reduce symptoms of social anxiety – which is the reason many turn to it – Stein and Walker note that alcohol can also increase anxiety, irritability, or depression a few hours later or the next day. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can affect one’s mood and anxiety level.
If you do at least one of the following, you may suffer from alcoholism:

  • Drink alcohol four or more times a week
  • Have five or more drinks containing alcohol in one day
  • Not be able to stop drinking once you’ve started
  • Need a drink in the morning to get yourself going
  • Feel guilty or remorseful after drinking
  • Heard a relative, friend, co-worker, or doctor express concern about your drinking or suggest you cut down

Excessive drinking can lead to addiction and delay the desire to seek treatment and interfere with the effectiveness of therapy or medication once on a treatment plan.

Treatment

On the verge of losing everything, and not really knowing myself, I started attending AA meetings. For the first year I couldn’t speak. Finally, I shared my story. Speaking at meetings slowly gave me confidence to speak in front of others.

Cynthia credits Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for not only helping her with her alcohol problem, but for putting her on the path to overcoming her social anxiety.

The meetings allowed her to gradually become comfortable speaking before other people, and once she became sober, Cynthia could focus on further reducing her social anxiety disorder symptoms through therapy. Find an AA meeting near you.
Some people with social anxiety, however, find AA meetings and other support groups to be too anxiety-provoking. Working one-on-one with a doctor or therapist with experience in treating anxiety disorders may be best and can help one prepare to successfully participate in an alcohol treatment program at a later time. Find a therapist near you.

A recent clinical study also found that a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational enhancement therapy (MET) may be successful in treating co-occurring social anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse. Motivational enhancement therapy is used in drug abuse counseling and encourages patients to turn their desire to change into concrete goals to do so.

Resources

Alcoholics Anonymous — for people with drinking problems
Alcohol Rehab Guide — a support community with valuable information
Al-Anon and Alateen — for friends and family of alcoholics
Find a Therapist — Search the ADAA directory for a therapist near you.

Recommended books

Triumph Over Shyness: Conquering Social Anxiety Disorder – ADAA publication full of practical tips, helpful techniques, and more to help manage anxious thoughts and physical symptoms of social anxiety disorder

Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Use: I’m SAD! I need a drink!

Being sad is one thing, but suffering from social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a totally different ball game. This is the same way that “wanting” a drink differs from “needing” a drink. When joined with problem drinking, this forms a lethal combination. For a long time, experts have witnessed that people with anxiety disorders are susceptible to substance abuse and vice versa, but determining which one is the preceding problem has been a stumbling block for diagnosis.

More than just shyness

An individual suffering from social phobia, also known as social anxiety disorder (SAD), has a distinct and sometime irrational fear or anxiety about specific circumstances. According to WebMD, some of these situations include:

  • Speaking in public
  • Eating or drinking in front of others
  • Writing or working in front of others
  • Being the center of attention
  • Interacting with people (i.e. dating, attending parties, etc.)
  • Asking questions or giving reports in groups
  • Using public toilets
  • Talking on the telephone

What causes SAD? Many researchers believe that it might be related to the abnormal functions of the brain circuits that regulate fear and anxiety. Genetics is also thought to play a part in its roots, since social phobia occasionally runs in a family. Other factors include stress and environment.

The fear of making a mistake or humiliating oneself in front of others can be debilitating to a person with SAD. Taking a drink to calm one’s nerves is often used as a coping mechanism.

More common and costly than you think

Anxiety disorders, which affect over 40 million adults (or approximately 18 percent of the population), are the common mental illnesses in the United States. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an estimated 15 million Americans suffer from SAD.

The disorder often surfaces during the teenage years or early adulthood and is more prevalent in women than men. Although highly treatable, sadly, only one-third of those suffering seek professional anxiety treatment.

The economic costs associated with anxiety disorders in the United States are overwhelming. In the 1990, the costs were estimated to be around $46.6 billion. The majority of the expenditures was tied to the loss and reduction of productivity and other indirect costs, instead of treatment.

Symptoms and signs

The symptoms that a person who is suffering with SAD experiences can vary and be difficult to distinguish from other health issues, such as depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. These individuals tends to have negative thoughts about themselves and what will happen to them in social situations. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, some of the common signs are:

  • Anxiousness – especially about being with other people
  • Self-consciousness – worried about how they are perceived by others
  • Extreme fear of embarrassment
  • Excessive worrying – sometimes for days and weeks before an activity
  • Avoidance of places where people hang out in crowds
  • Difficulty establishing and maintaining relationships

Physical signs, which include:

  • Blushing
  • Heavy sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Hard time talking

Self-medicating

Even after diagnosis, individuals are often leery about seeking professional help. They underestimate the seriousness of their condition and believe that they can fix the problem themselves. Instead of seeking mental health treatment, alcohol and other substance are often used for self-medicating an anxiety disorder. Researchers are investigating just how frequently people are using and abusing self-destructive alternatives to deal with SAD and other anxiety-based disorders.

Individuals self-medicating an anxiety disorder are two to five times more likely to develop an alcohol or drug problem within three years.

A 2011 longitudinal study that includes almost 35,000 U. S. adults revealed that 13 percent of those who had consumed alcohol or drugs during the previous year had done so in order to relieve anxiety, fear or panic. It also found that individuals with a diagnosed anxiety disorder who were self-medicating at the beginning of the research were two to five times more likely to develop an alcohol or drug problem within three years than people who did not self-medicate.

Other results from the three-year study showed that the number of people with an anxiety disorder who developed a substance problem varied depending on the self-medicating substance:

  • With alcohol use – 13 percent developed an alcohol problem
  • With recreational drugs use -“ 10 percent developed a drug problem

A drink won’t help

One of the most frequent self-medicating techniques is alcohol consumption. Individuals turn to alcohol because it help them feel more in control of a given situation or encounter. It also lowers inhibitions and reduces self-consciousness. In some social gatherings, such as parties and mixers, alcohol is available in abundance.

A 2012 study at Emory University investigated the relationship between SAD and the motives for drinking. The researchers believed that the reasons for drinking are based on the fact that people drink in order to achieve an outcome that is of value to them. The motives can be categorized as:

  • Social: Drinking to aid camaraderie
  • Enhancement: Drinking to have more confidence or to enhance the impact of another drug
  • Coping: Drinking to cope with or escape from stress

The results showed that 13 percent of the participants met criteria for SAD at some point during their lives. It was determined that SAD was a predictor of coping drinking motives, but was not a predictor for social or enhancement motives. The research also revealed that other mood disorders (i.e. depression, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder) also lead to coping drinking motives.

Short-term solution, long-term problems

Self-medicating anxiety with alcohol makes things worse in the long term.Drinking alcohol is only a short-term solution for suppressing anxiety. Initially, drinking may make an individual suffering from SAD have less tension and feel more confident in social situations. However, once the “buzz” wears off, the old anxiety returns. Dr. James M. Bolton, lead researcher in a 2011 study about the effectiveness of alcohol in treating anxiety, stated: “People probably believe that self-medication works. What people do not realize is that this quick-fix method actually makes things worse in the long term.”

Alcohol is a depressant and has an overall detrimental effect on the central nervous system. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, regular alcohol use can lead to long-term health problems such as:

  • Stretching and drooping of heart muscles (cardiomyopathy)
  • Irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias)
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver disease/inflammations
  • Certain cancers (mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast)
  • Weaken immune system

Additionally, alcohol can interfere with the thinking process. Drinking a couple of glasses wine before a presentation may seem like a way to lessen tension. However, that consumption can lead to making errors and possibly fumbling through the talk, which could increase the anxiety for any future communications. Thus, this compels the anxiously-minded individual to drink even more alcohol and starts a vicious cycle that is difficult to break with alcohol addiction treatment.

Alcohol is not the answer

If you suffer from SAD, don’t make the mistake of trying to eliminate your problems with alcohol alone. SAD is a psychological disorder and should be treated by medical professionals. Treating SAD with alcohol leads to additional problems that can destroy relationships with families and friends.

If you or a loved one has already started self-medicating with alcohol, the experts at Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches can help. Our alcohol detox program in Palm Beach can be your first step. With nearly 20 years of experience, our doctors can develop a treatment program that gives you better options to deal with your anxiety issues. Alcohol is not a safe and healthy way to deal with anxiety. Call us at (888) 432-2467 for healthier possibilities.

My Experience with Social Anxiety and Alcoholism

When people think about social anxiety, they usually imagine someone cooped up in their apartment, too afraid to leave, nauseous at the thought of passing someone in the hallway. It’s true that social anxiety can sometimes look like this, but it’s not the whole picture.

For some people, like me, social anxiety can look like dancing in a crowd of sweaty people with a drink in hand. Like opening a third bottle of wine at your sister’s bridal shower. Like laying in bed with a headache, wondering if you’re dying, if all your friends hate you or if you did anything loathsome you can’t remember the night before.

These images are opposite sides of the same coin, though we don’t often realize it unless we’ve experienced it ourselves. Though social anxiety can drive sufferers to avoid social situations, it can also lead them to self-medicate in hopes of coping. It’s a dangerous cycle, and women are at an increased risk of getting trapped.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, heightened pulse and difficulty breathing. It can also lead to, frankly, pretty weird behavior. With social anxiety, some of the most banal things in the word feel terrifying — such as, in my case, standing in line at the grocery store, answering the doorbell or opening a text message.

At the heart of social anxiety rests a fear of being judged.

As a persistent phobia, this fear can get in the way of friendships, careers and ambitions, and women are two times more likely than men to develop an anxiety disorder.

Women’s predisposition to anxiety may be a result of biological differences. Hormones and higher sensitivity to chemicals responsible for stress could play a part. However, I believe social influences may play a role as well.

On average, women face greater pressure than men to meet certain standards. For example, society expects women to exhibit qualities like kindness, compassion and sociability. Women can also feel pressured to meet what are arguably high beauty standards. For some women, these pressures culminate into a perpetual fear of being deemed unworthy. With so much pressure to appear friendly, caring and compliant, some women might attempt to mask social anxiety rather than address it.

Alcohol can hide social anxiety.

As many people know, alcohol can temporarily lower inhibitions and allow users to feel relaxed, which is why partying isn’t necessarily incompatible with social anxiety. In these spaces, alcohol can temporarily relieve symptoms of social anxiety, allowing people like me to socialize without feeling nervous or uncomfortable.

Considering the effects of alcohol, it makes sense that anxiety disorders and alcoholism coincide. Around 20% of those with social anxiety also suffer from alcohol dependence. As the body becomes more tolerant of alcohol, it takes more and more to feel its relaxing effects, so it’s easy for an indulgence to become a crutch really quickly.

For women that suffer from social anxiety, alcohol abuse can be particularly dangerous. Research suggests that women become dependent more quickly than men. Women also risk health consequences like organ damage and poisoning from lower doses of alcohol. As a form of self-medication, alcohol comes with a scary number of side-effects.

Excessive alcohol use kills about 88,000 people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It hurts me to think how many of those deaths could have been avoided with proper mental health treatment.

It might sound like a cliché, but the first step to getting better is realizing the problem. It took me a while to do that, but eventually, I did.

Overcoming alcohol dependence requires people to understand the roots of the issue — in my case, it was social anxiety.

Here’s the good news: self-medicating with alcohol isn’t the only way to treat social anxiety. Therapy and medication both provide effective treatments, and support groups — like the one I joined at home — can help as well.

Learning to socialize without alcohol can feel like re-learning how to walk for some people, but it’s seriously worth it — believe me. I swapped nightclubs for book clubs out of necessity. But what I realized along the way is that it’s possible to meet people who support you despite your anxiety, and who remind you there’s no pressure to be perfect.

6 Ways to Overcome Social Anxiety

“For some people social anxiety is pretty pervasive,” said Justin Weeks, Ph.D, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the Center for Evaluation and Treatment of Anxiety at Ohio University. For others, the anxiety arises in specific social situations, he said.

The most common example of social anxiety is anxiousness about public speaking. Making small talk, eating in front of others, and using public restrooms also can trigger worry and unease for some.

Some people engage in what Weeks called “covert avoidance.” For example, they might go to parties. But instead of mingling, they hang back in the kitchen, he said.

Social anxiety is defined as anxiety anticipating a social situation, or anxiety during or after that situation, Weeks said. “At the heart of social anxiety is the fear of evaluation.”

And it’s not just negative evaluation that people worry about; it’s positive evaluation, too.

Weeks’s research suggests that people perceive negative consequences from a social situation whether they do poorly or well. (Here’s one study.) For instance, people who do well at work might worry about the social repercussions of outshining their coworkers, he said.

In other words, people with social anxiety simply don’t want to stand out. “They want to be as inconspicuous as possible.”

Anxiety about social situations lies on a spectrum. “The consensus among the experts is that shyness and social anxiety disorder are all part of one continuum,” Weeks said. “It’s a question of severity.”

How much does social anxiety interfere with your life?

For instance, you might wish that you were more comfortable when interacting with people, Weeks said. But “you don’t feel like it’s holding you back,” in terms of your personal or professional goals.

“Social anxiety is more severe.” A person might avoid going to college because schools require passing a public speaking course and interacting with new people. They might want a romantic relationship but worry so much about rejection that they avoid potential partners.

How to Overcome Your Social Anxiety

Below, Weeks shared his suggestions for overcoming social anxiety.

1. Try a self-help manual.

Self-help manuals are designed to supplement therapy, but they’re also good tools for working on your own, Weeks said. He suggested the Managing Social Anxiety workbook.

2. Work with a therapist.

If social anxiety is stopping you from doing things you want or need to do, or you haven’t had much success with self-help, seek professional help. Find a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. You can start your search here.

3. Practice deep breathing every day.

It’s helpful to engage in deep breathing before an anxiety-provoking social situation, Weeks said. But practice this technique every day. This way it becomes second nature, and you don’t hyperfocus on deep breathing and miss an entire conversation, he said. Here’s more on deep breathing.

4. Create an exposure hierarchy.

An exposure hierarchy is a list — akin to a ladder — where you write down situations that cause you anxiety, in order of severity. Then you perform the easiest behavior, and keep moving up the list.

To create your own hierarchy, list 10 anxiety-provoking situations, and rate them on a 100-point scale (zero being no anxiety; 100 being severe anxiety). Your list might start with asking a stranger for directions and end with joining Toastmasters.

The Google Books preview of the social anxiety book is one place to get started on coping with social anxiety. You may also want to fill out the the fear and avoidance hierarchy worksheet to help you get started.

Additionally, this helpful worksheet offers an exercise that helps you explore your social anxiety.

5. Create objective goals.

People tend to disqualify the positive when they feel anxious, Weeks said. They might do well, even great, but because of their anxious feelings, they see their performance as abysmal. That’s why therapists encourage clients to create objective behavioral goals, he said.

These are behaviors that anyone in the room would be able to observe. It doesn’t matter how you feel or whether you’re blushing or sweating (which you can’t control anyway) in a social situation.

For instance, if you’re working in a group setting, the objective behavior would be to make three comments, Weeks said.

This also gives you a good barometer for judging your progress. Again, you’re not focusing on whether you felt nervous. Rather, you’re focusing on whether you performed the actual behavior.

Also, avoid focusing on others’ reactions. It doesn’t matter how your colleagues received your idea in the meeting. What matters is that you actually spoke up. It doesn’t matter whether a girl or guy said yes to your dinner invite. What matters is that you actually asked. It doesn’t matter how your child’s teacher reacted when you declined to volunteer for yet another school trip. What matters is that you were assertive and respected your own needs.

As Weeks said, “You did what you wanted to in a situation. We can’t control what another person is going to do.”

6. Keep a rational outlook.

Dispute both bleak thoughts that undermine your performance and fuel your anxiety, and equally unrealistic thoughts that are irrationally positive, Weeks said.

For instance, if you’re giving a speech, you might initially think, “I’m going to bomb.” But if you’ve given speeches before and done well, then this isn’t a rational or realistic perspective. You might say instead, “I’ve given speeches before. I’m prepared, and I’ll give it my best shot.”

If you’re asking someone out, it’s not rational to think, “They’re definitely going to say yes.” But it is rational to consider, “They might,” according to Weeks.

If social anxiety is sabotaging your goals and stopping you from living the life you want, seek help and try the above strategies. Social anxiety is highly treatable, Weeks said. You can get better, and grow in the process.

Hope, DA, Heimberg, RG, & Turk, CL. (2010). Managing Social Anxiety, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press.

Interview with Justin Weeks, Ph.D, Center for Evaluation and Treatment of Anxiety at Ohio University, 2016.

Toastmasters. (2018). Retrieved from www.toastmasters.org

6 Ways to Overcome Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety Disorder

Feel intensely uncomfortable in social situations? Use this guide to learn about the symptoms, treatment, and self-help for social phobia.

Many people get nervous or self-conscious on occasion, like when giving a speech or interviewing for a new job. But social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is more than just shyness or occasional nerves. Social anxiety disorder involves intense fear of certain social situations—especially situations that are unfamiliar or in which you feel you’ll be watched or evaluated by others. These situations may be so frightening that you get anxious just thinking about them or go to great lengths to avoid them, disrupting your life in the process.

Underlying social anxiety disorder is the fear of being scrutinized, judged, or embarrassed in public. You may be afraid that people will think badly of you or that you won’t measure up in comparison to others. And even though you probably realize that your fears of being judged are at least somewhat irrational and overblown, you still can’t help feeling anxious. But no matter how painfully shy you may be and no matter how bad the butterflies, you can learn to be comfortable in social situations and reclaim your life.

What causes social anxiety?

Although it may feel like you’re the only one with this problem, social anxiety is actually quite common. Many people struggle with these fears. But the situations that trigger the symptoms of social anxiety disorder can be different.

Some people experience anxiety in most social situations. For others, anxiety is connected to specific social situations, such as speaking to strangers, mingling at parties, or performing in front of an audience. Common social anxiety triggers include:

  • Meeting new people
  • Making small talk
  • Public speaking
  • Performing on stage
  • Being the center of attention
  • Being watched while doing something
  • Being teased or criticized
  • Talking with “important” people or authority figures
  • Being called on in class
  • Going on a date
  • Speaking up in a meeting
  • Using public restrooms
  • Taking exams
  • Eating or drinking in public
  • Making phone calls
  • Attending parties or other social gatherings

Signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder

Just because you occasionally get nervous in social situations doesn’t mean you have social anxiety disorder or social phobia. Many people feel shy or self-conscious on occasion, yet it doesn’t get in the way of their everyday functioning. Social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, does interfere with your normal routine and causes tremendous distress.

For example, it’s perfectly normal to get the jitters before giving a speech. But if you have social anxiety, you might worry for weeks ahead of time, call in sick to get out of it, or start shaking so bad during the speech that you can hardly speak.

Emotional signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder:

  • Excessive self-consciousness and anxiety in everyday social situations
  • Intense worry for days, weeks, or even months before an upcoming social situation
  • Extreme fear of being watched or judged by others, especially people you don’t know
  • Fear that you’ll act in ways that will embarrass or humiliate yourself
  • Fear that others will notice that you’re nervous

Physical signs and symptoms:

  • Red face, or blushing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Upset stomach, nausea (i.e. butterflies)
  • Trembling or shaking (including shaky voice)
  • Racing heart or tightness in chest
  • Sweating or hot flashes
  • Feeling dizzy or faint

Behavioral signs and symptoms:

  • Avoiding social situations to a degree that limits your activities or disrupts your life
  • Staying quiet or hiding in the background in order to escape notice and embarrassment
  • A need to always bring a buddy along with you wherever you go
  • Drinking before social situations in order to soothe your nerves

Social anxiety disorder in children

There’s nothing abnormal about a child being shy, but children with social anxiety disorder experience extreme distress over everyday situations such as playing with other kids, reading in class, speaking to adults, or taking tests. Often, children with social phobia don’t even want to go to school.

How to overcome social anxiety disorder tip 1: Challenge negative thoughts

While it may seem like there’s nothing you can do about the symptoms of social anxiety disorder or social phobia, in reality, there are many things that can help. The first step is challenging your mentality.

Social anxiety sufferers have negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their fears and anxiety. These can include thoughts such as:

  • “I know I’ll end up looking like a fool.”
  • “My voice will start shaking and I’ll humiliate myself.”
  • “People will think I’m stupid”
  • “I won’t have anything to say. I’ll seem boring.”

Challenging these negative thoughts is an effective way to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety.

Step 1: Identify the automatic negative thoughts that underlie your fear of social situations. For example, if you’re worried about an upcoming work presentation, the underlying negative thought might be: “I’m going to blow it. Everyone will think I’m completely incompetent.”

Step 2: Analyze and challenge these thoughts. It helps to ask yourself questions about the negative thoughts: “Do I know for sure that I’m going to blow the presentation?” or “Even if I’m nervous, will people necessarily think I’m incompetent?” Through this logical evaluation of your negative thoughts, you can gradually replace them with more realistic and positive ways of looking at social situations that trigger your anxiety.

It can be incredibly scary to think about why you feel and think the way you do, but understanding the reasons for your anxieties will help lessen their negative impact on your life.

Unhelpful thinking styles that fuel social anxiety

Ask yourself if you’re engaging in any of the following unhelpful thinking styles:

  • Mind reading – Assuming you know what other people are thinking, and that they see you in the same negative way that you see yourself.
  • Fortune telling – Predicting the future, usually while assuming the worst will happen. You just “know” that things will go horribly, so you’re already anxious before you’re even in the situation.
  • Catastrophizing – Blowing things out of proportion. For example, if people notice that you’re nervous, it will be “awful”, “terrible”, or “disastrous.”
  • Personalizing – Assuming that people are focusing on you in a negative way or that what’s going on with other people has to do with you.

Tip 2: Focus on others, not yourself

When we’re in a social situation that makes us nervous, many of us tend to get caught up in our anxious thoughts and feelings. You may be convinced that everyone is looking at you and judging you. Your focus is on your bodily sensations, hoping that by paying extra close attention you can better control them. But this excessive self-focus just makes you more aware of how nervous you’re feeling, triggering even more anxiety! It also prevents you from fully concentrating on the conversations around you or the performance you’re giving.

Switching from an internal to an external focus can go a long way toward reducing social anxiety. This is easier said than done, but you can’t pay attention to two things at once. The more you concentrate on what’s happening around you, the less you’ll be affected by anxiety.

Focus your attention on other people, but not on what they’re thinking of you! Instead, do your best to engage them and make a genuine connection.

Remember that anxiety isn’t as visible as you think. And even if someone notices that you’re nervous, that doesn’t mean they’ll think badly of you. Chances are other people are feeling just as nervous as you—or have done in the past.

Really listen to what is being said not to your own negative thoughts.

Focus on the present moment, rather than worrying about what you’re going to say or beating yourself up for a flub that’s already passed.

Release the pressure to be perfect. Instead, focus on being genuine and attentive—qualities that other people will appreciate.

Tip 3: Learn to control your breathing

Many changes happen in your body when you become anxious. One of the first changes is that you begin to breathe quickly. Overbreathing (hyperventilation) throws off the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body—leading to more physical symptoms of anxiety, such as dizziness, a feeling of suffocation, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.

Learning to slow your breathing down can help bring your physical symptoms of anxiety back under control. Practicing the following breathing exercise will help you stay calm:

  • Sit comfortably with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
  • Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for 4 seconds. The hand on your stomach should rise, while the hand on your chest should move very little.
  • Hold the breath for 2 seconds.
  • Exhale slowly through your mouth for 6 seconds, pushing out at much air as you can. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  • Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on keeping a slow and steady breathing pattern of 4-in, 2-hold, and 6-out.

Tip 4: Face your fears

One of the most helpful things you can do to overcome social anxiety is to face the social situations you fear rather than avoid them. Avoidance keeps social anxiety disorder going. While avoiding nerve-wracking situations may help you feel better in the short term, it prevents you from becoming more comfortable in social situations and learning how to cope in the long term. In fact, the more you avoid a feared social situation, the more frightening it becomes.

Avoidance can also prevent you from doing things you’d like to do or reaching certain goals. For example, a fear of speaking up may prevent you from sharing your ideas at work, standing out in the classroom, or making new friends.

While it may seem impossible to overcome a feared social situation, you can do it by taking it one small step at a time. The key is to start with a situation that you can handle and gradually work your way up to more challenging situations, building your confidence and coping skills as you move up the “anxiety ladder.”

For example, if socializing with strangers makes you anxious, you might start by accompanying an outgoing friend to a party. Once you’re comfortable with that step, you might try introducing yourself to one new person, and so on. To work your way up a social anxiety ladder:

Don’t try to face your biggest fear right away. It’s never a good idea to move too fast, take on too much, or force things. This may backfire and reinforce your anxiety.

Be patient. Overcoming social anxiety takes time and practice. It’s a gradual step-by-step progress.

Use the skills you’ve learned to stay calm, such as focusing on your breathing and challenging negative assumptions.

Socially interacting with co-workers: A sample anxiety ladder

Step 1: Say “hello” to your co-workers.

Step 2: Ask a co-worker a work-related question.

Step 3: Ask a co-worker what they did over the weekend.

Step 4: Sit in the break room with co-workers during your coffee break.

Step 5: Eat lunch in the break room with your co-workers.

Step 6: Eat lunch in the break room and make small talk with one or more of your coworkers, such as talking about the weather, sports, or current events.

Step 7: Ask a co-worker to go for a coffee or drink after work.

Step 8: Go out for lunch with a group of co-workers.

Step 9: Share personal information about yourself with one or more co-workers.

Step 10: Attend a staff party with your co-workers.

Tip 5: Make an effort to be more social

Actively seeking out supportive social environments is another effective way of challenging your fears and overcoming social anxiety. The following suggestions are good ways to start interacting with others in positive ways:

Take a social skills class or an assertiveness training class. These classes are often offered at local adult education centers or community colleges.

Volunteer doing something you enjoy, such as walking dogs in a shelter, or stuffing envelopes for a campaign—anything that will give you an activity to focus on while you are also engaging with a small number of like-minded people.

Work on your communication skills. Good relationships depend on clear, emotionally-intelligent communication. If you find that you have trouble connecting to others, learning the basic skills of emotional intelligence can help.

Tips for making friends even if you’re shy or socially awkward

No matter how awkward or nervous you feel in the company of others, you can learn to silence self-critical thoughts, boost your self-esteem, and become more confident and secure in your interactions with others. You don’t have to change your personality. By simply learning new skills and adopting a different outlook you can overcome your fears and anxiety and build rewarding friendships.

Tip 6: Adopt an anti-anxiety lifestyle

The mind and the body are intrinsically linked—and more and more evidence suggests that how you treat your body can have a significant effect on your anxiety levels, your ability to manage anxiety symptoms, and your overall self-confidence.

While lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to overcome social phobia or social anxiety disorder, they can support your overall treatment progress. The following lifestyle tips will help you reduce your overall anxiety levels and set the stage for successful treatment.

Avoid or limit caffeine – Coffee, tea, soda, and energy drinks act as stimulants that increase anxiety symptoms. Consider cutting out caffeine entirely, or keeping your intake low and limited to the morning.

Get active – Make physical activity a priority—30 minutes per day if possible. If you hate to exercise, try pairing it with something you do enjoy, such as window shopping while walking laps around the mall or dancing to your favorite music.

Add more omega-3 fats to your diet – Omega-3 fatty acids support brain health and can improve your mood, outlook, and ability to handle anxiety. The best sources are fatty fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines), seaweed, flaxseed, and walnuts.

Drink only in moderation – You may be tempted to drink before a social situation to calm your nerves, but alcohol increases your risk of having an anxiety attack.

Quit smoking – Nicotine is a powerful stimulant. Contrary to popular belief, smoking leads to higher, not lower, levels of anxiety. If you need help kicking the habit, see: How to Quit Smoking.

Get enough quality sleep – When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more vulnerable to anxiety. Being well rested will help you stay calm in social situations.

Social anxiety disorder treatment

If you’ve tried the self-help techniques above and you’re still struggling with disabling social anxiety, you may need professional help as well.

Therapy for social anxiety

Of all the professional treatments available, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to work best for treating social anxiety disorder. CBT is based on the premise that what you think affects how you feel, and your feelings affect your behavior. So if you change the way you think about social situations that give you anxiety, you’ll feel and function better.

CBT for social phobia may involve:

Learning how to control the physical symptoms of anxiety through relaxation techniques and breathing exercises.

Challenging negative, unhelpful thoughts that trigger and fuel social anxiety, replacing them with more balanced views.

Facing the social situations you fear in a gradual, systematic way, rather than avoiding them.

While you can learn and practice these exercises on your own, if you’ve had trouble with self-help, you may benefit from the extra support and guidance a therapist brings.

Role-playing, social skills training, and other CBT techniques, often as part of a therapy group. Group therapy uses acting, videotaping and observing, mock interviews, and other exercises to work on situations that make you anxious in the real world. As you practice and prepare for situations you’re afraid of, you will become more and more comfortable, and your anxiety will lessen.

Medication for social anxiety disorder

Medication is sometimes used to relieve the symptoms of social anxiety, but it’s not a cure. Medication is considered most helpful when used in addition to therapy and self-help techniques that address the root cause of your social anxiety disorder.

Three types of medication are used in the treatment of social anxiety:

Beta blockers are used for relieving performance anxiety. While they don’t affect the emotional symptoms of anxiety, they can control physical symptoms such as shaking hands or voice, sweating, and rapid heartbeat.

Antidepressants may be helpful when social anxiety disorder is severe and debilitating.

Benzodiazepines are fast-acting anti-anxiety medications. However, they are sedating and addictive, so are typically prescribed only when other medications have not worked.

How to beat social anxiety?

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