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.

Let’s Celebrate Life

I have reached an age where my friends are starting to get engaged, some of them even have one or two kids. I have reached an age where other people start expecting certain things from me.

Whenever I open my Facebook or Instagram news feeds, all I can see are pictures of hands with gorgeous diamond rings, and everyone is so thrilled by the news that the comments sections keep refreshing by the minute. As I observe the reactions towards this, I begin wondering why there are so few pictures posted online about promotions at work, or other huge life milestones like buying a first home or graduating from a Master’s Degree?

Why it is that getting married and having kids are still considered to be the epitomes of success for women?

Are they accomplishments? Yes.

Are they the only accomplishment worth celebrating? Definitely not.

Whenever I catch up with old friends or people I haven’t seen for a while, it seems the only relevant question to ask me is when I am tying the knot. Does the same thing happens to my brother or my boyfriend? I am pretty sure it doesn’t, at least not this often.

It seems outrageous to me that given the time we live in, getting married is still more respected than any other professional, academic or entrepreneurial achievement for women. For the record, I am not undermining the idea of marriage – it is a beautiful commitment. I am simply stressing how important it is to celebrate other accomplishments as well.

I can see why this was once considered the milestone in life, since not so long ago this was all women were allowed to aspire to. Let’s be frank, though, this changed many years ago and yet we are still defined above all else as someone’s wife, mother or girlfriend.

I want to be able to share and celebrate my job promotion, my future master’s degree, the launch of my own business, and the amazing trips I plan to make with my friends and loved ones. I want these milestones to be received with the same enthusiasm and acknowledgment as an engagement announcement.

The marriage pressure women are under is still huge, and it has got to stop. Specially in Mexico – an often sexist country – it is still hard to believe a woman can be full or truly happy without a man.

I want to stress how important this is. It is important for all of us who have ever felt there is something wrong with us if we are single, and for all of us who have worried that it’s strange to feel truly happy and blessed without being in a relationship. It’s important for all of us who have been in an abusive relationship but were too scared to walk away due to social stigma, and for all women who feel attracted to other women but cannot say so because society works so hard to make us think that the best answer is always having a man by our side.

It’s okay if you are single, it’s okay if you don’t want to have children, it’s okay to live your life in any way that makes you happy. It’s ok to live life on your own terms. Go and do what you love, there is no such thing as a ticking clock. Let’s work together to change this perception and help society move towards being more equal.

I encourage you to share this thought with the women in your life and discuss it with them.