Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Use: I’m SAD! I need a drink!Alyssa
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:
- Heavy sweating
- Increased heart rate
- Hard time talking
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 anxiety 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. Reach out to us today at 561-220-3981 to learn more.