Social Drinking, Social Anxiety and the Open Bar
What is it about an open bar at a lively party? Friendly wait staff in bow ties and damask draped folding tables.The inevitable lineup of soon to be new best friends. And for anyone like me, with social anxiety, the open bar is the ultimate event ice-breaker.
New Friends, Open Bar….No Social Anxiety Here.…
In the movie The Grinch, there is a scene I identify with a bit too much. Jim Carey’s Grinch has been invited to a party and he is trying to decide what to wear. The fear, foreboding and negative self-talk while preparing for an uncomfortable event is funny when the Grinch experiences it. But all too relatable for those with social anxiety.
Alright, I’ll swing by for a minute, allow them to envy me, grab a handful of popcorn shrimp, and blow out of there…..but what if it’s a cruel prank?…What if it’s a cash bar?….how dare they!…Alright I’ll go, but I’ll be fashionably late…no, yes, no, yes…no…yes….definitely not. Alright, I’ve made my decision. I’m going, and that’s that. Ah…had my fingers crossed…The Grinch
And what is the Grinch’s biggest concern? That he may have to pay for his “liquid courage”. There is nothing wrong with heading to the open bar at a party and sipping a glass of wine, beer or club soda as you mingle. It’s a good way to meet the person in front of you, wet your whistle and, once served, have something to do with your hands. But if you overindulge because of excessive fear of social situations, you may be heading for an alcohol use disorder.
The Connection Between Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol…
As stated by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), “Social anxiety disorder [is] an excessive fear of social situations, such as eating or speaking in public, [and it] affects up to 13 percent of the US population. In the general population, levels of anxiety exist on a continuum from mild to severe. About one-fifth of patients with social anxiety disorder also suffer from an alcohol use disorder….”
It’s not surprising that folks with a high level of anxiety use alcohol to make themselves feel more comfortable. And it’s almost a prerequisite to drink alcohol at corporate events, weddings, adult birthdays and other milestones. Self-medicating from the open bar seems more acceptable than someone who always cancels at the last minute. Or who stands in a corner quivering at the cotillion.
The Tension Reduction Hypothesis…
The Tension Reduction Hypothesis poses that alcohol serves as a “negative reinforcer”. A negative reinforcer is something that eliminates a bad experience. So, if I think that alcohol helps me be more charming at the bar mitzvah, I am probably going to continue to use alcohol as a negative reinforcer for every other situation that makes me feel panicky. Whether alcohol actually reduces my anxiety or not. Unchecked, the anxiety grows and the need for that familiar negative reinforcer increases.
Nevertheless, people with social anxiety disorder report that aside from totally avoiding anxiety-inducing situations, alcohol use is one of the primary means of coping…If a person’s expectancy that alcohol reduces stress is left unchallenged, it may be a powerful enough belief system to explain why a person continues to use alcohol to relieve stress. NIAAA
What Do I Do Now?
A clinical diagnosis of social anxiety is only given when the fear is so great it impairs performance or causes a person to avoid any situations that provoke anxiety. In the same vein, an alcohol use disorder is defined by lack of control, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems. But what about those folks with social anxiety who have not been diagnosed? Those who belly up to the open bar like it’s a life boat on a sinking cruise ship, because they “just want to take the edge off”?
If a person with social anxiety is not in treatment and is self-medicating with a nice Chianti the link is significant. Because interventions for the prevention or treatment of social anxiety disorder may also prevent alcoholism. And in so doing, decrease the additional alcoholism risks, such as medical issues, accidents and relationship conflicts.
We have an underutilized potential, not only for reducing the burden of social anxiety, but also for preventing alcohol problems. Cognitive behavioral therapy with controlled exposure to the feared situations has shown good results… Dr. Fartein Ask Torvik – Norwegian Institute of Public Health
Treatment of Social Anxiety Disorders
According to the National Institute on Health (NIH) social anxiety responds well to both pharmacologic treatment and psychotherapy. Both interventions seek to reduce fear, discomfort and avoidance of triggering situations. Following are options for therapeutic intervention:
Psychotherapy – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Exposure Therapy; Cognitive Restructuring; Relaxation Training; Social Skills Training
The NIH also says that treatment depends on whether alcohol is used only as a coping mechanism. Or whether the alcohol use has “taken on a life of its own”. And as the onset of a social anxiety disorder almost always precedes the onset of a substance use disorder, getting proper treatment for anxiety is key.
And “caution” is always the word when it comes to social drinking…
The Grinch did go to the Whos’ party. He wore an ugly Christmas sweater, judged a pudding contest and got in a fight. But he went. And there is a lesson to be learned from this. Almost everybody gets a twinge of fear in a new situation or when they are called upon to speak in public. But the best thing you can do for your social anxiety is to find a relatively safe situation and just DO IT. Just turn up and see what happens.
If you tend to drink to settle your nervous stomach, wait for a while before you line up at the open bar at a party. Try socializing like those of us in recovery…. And if your social anxiety is so inhibiting you’ve stopped going to social events or feel the need to belt a shot while you’re tying your tie, get help from a professional. Caution is always the word when it comes to social drinking, but if you use alcohol to relieve anxiety, the “comfort” you seek at the open bar may actually be doubling your troubles.