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.