There are over 320 million people living in the United States alone. 320 million living, thinking, moving people in our country. That’s an overwhelming number. It’s no wonder social anxiety has become so common amongst people these days. You literally cannot leave your house without running into another person. But that actually shouldn’t be a scary thing. Socializing isn’t supposed to be scary or anxiety triggering. And yet, it is for a lot of people.
About 15 million American adults have social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder can be detrimental to anyone’s wellbeing. But it’s especially harmful in recovery because you can’t go through recovery alone. And if there’s anyone out there who has, feel free to object. But the fact that you’re reading this as I talk to you proves that you’re not alone. We’re interacting, albeit with a few miles and a couple computer screens between us, but still… I’m talking to you. Feel awkward yet? Recovery requires that you interact with the rest of the world as a normal, functioning human being. You can’t (by definition) interact with people alone. But people with social anxiety harbor an irrational fear of social situations. And just like social anxiety disorder will inhibit people from leading normal lives, it will keep recovering addicts from thriving in recovery.
The Difference Between Feeling Anxious and Having Social Anxiety
It’s not at all uncommon for someone to get sweaty palms before going up on stage to speak in front of an audience. But if you ask that person if he’s okay, he’ll likely brush it off and tell you, “Oh, I just get social anxiety sometimes.” Just like your girlfriend telling you she gets OCD about the way her clothes are lined up in her closet, calling your public speaking nerves social anxiety isn’t correct. People who legitimately experience social anxiety often aren’t even able to perform normal daily functions, like ordering at a restaurant or going on a date.
However, that’s not to say that feeling anxious before walking into a room full of strangers can’t cause feelings of anxiety. But it’s normal. Social anxiety is not. It’s a mental disorder. People who get a little anxious before meeting new people, speaking in front of a crowd, or walking into a party are still generally able to handle the stress of those situations. But the stress will be too much to handle for people who suffer from social anxiety disorder. They’ll avoid certain social interactions because even things like making eye contact while someone speaks to them feels too uncomfortable and triggers anxiety.
Social anxiety manifests in many different forms, but the typical emotional symptoms are intense feelings of fear, stress, and confusion. These feelings are also coupled with some uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as sweating, severe blushing, muscle tension, faintness, and headaches. Many people who experience these symptoms are also afraid that other people will notice and comment on them. To others, that seems irrational because most people don’t comment. But the fear can be crippling to those who struggle with such anxiety.
Social Anxiety in Recovery
Think about the things that help people through recovery. Whether it’s individual therapy, group therapy, alumni programs, 12 step meetings, fellowship groups, or a sponsor, these things all require social interaction. It’s typically not easy for most recovering addicts to initially open up about their feelings. So dealing with social anxiety on top of that can cripple a person and keep them from taking advantage and moving forward in recovery. But fixation and rigidity are infamous enemies of recovery. If a person is unable to work through their anxiety and move forward in recovery, they run a huge risk of falling back into addiction.
Social Anxiety and Alcoholism
About 20% of people who struggle with social anxiety also struggle with alcoholism.
When we drink alcohol, we often feel more relaxed, uninhibited, and social. It’s no wonder that about 1/5 of people who struggle with social anxiety have developed a dependency on alcohol. It acts as a crutch for people who feel physically and emotionally unable to comfortably participate in social situations. Most of the time, that crutch goes unnoticed because the most unbearable social situations usually welcome alcohol. For example, parties are notorious breeding grounds for social anxiety symptoms for someone who suffers from the disorder. But it’s not unusual for people to be drinking at parties. So, you can’t really tell if someone is using alcohol as a crutch because, in reality, everyone is. It’s widely considered normal. What isn’t normal is feeling like you can’t go to the grocery store without a little liquid courage.
Using alcohol to help ease feelings of anxiety is a form of self-medication. Many people either don’t realize that their social anxiety isn’t normal or they’re too afraid or conflicted to seek help. So they turn to easier, more private means of “help.” Enter: alcohol. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that about 36% of people who suffer with social anxiety reported feeling symptoms for 10 or more years before ever seeking help.
Shrouded in Stigma
There are many reasons why so many people who suffer with a mental disorder like social anxiety don’t seek help. But they primarily all boil down to one thing: stigma. Our society looks at mental illness with a huge, negatively connoted emphasis on that “illness” portion. Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are viewed as wrong, taboo, and dangerous. And while mental illness is dangerous, our culture doesn’t view the danger in the right way. People see mental illness as a danger to society when, in reality, it’s a danger to the person suffering. They need help, not labels, scrutiny, and discrimination.
And that stigma doesn’t just stem from society and culture as whole entities. It comes from individuals too. Even the people who suffer from mental and emotional disorders see themselves as abominations. So, many refuse to accept, admit, and address that they may suffer from a mental disorder, let alone that they need help from others for it.
Social anxiety is almost worse than other illnesses in this sense because the people who struggle with it, by definition, are unable to comfortably interact with others. So, while the majority of people who struggle with a mental illness are not inclined (to put it lightly) to seek help, that inhibition is exponentially stronger for those with social anxiety disorder. Obviously, the solution here is to start accepting mental illness as a part of humanity, which it most definitely is. But that’s easier said than done.
Dealing with Social Anxiety in Recovery
If you struggle with social anxiety and you’re in recovery for substance addiction, you may think the odds are against you. But you’re actually much, much stronger than you believe. Taking that step into recovery implies that you already at least accepted something is wrong and you needed help. So you got it. People grow stronger out of struggles. I don’t mean to brush social anxiety off as easily curable (it’s not), but it is manageable.
How to Triumph Over Social Anxiety in Recovery:
How Do You Hold Up?
So, let’s reiterate. It’s normal to feel anxious when meeting new people, walking into a room, or doing many other public, social things. It’s not normal to talk yourself out of going to your recovery program’s alumni outing because the thought of saying hello and sharing with the other event-goers makes you want to drink again. Social anxiety is a real and potentially harmful thing. It can cause someone to go from living life to watching life just happen. If it is taking over your life, don’t hesitate to seek help. But if you think these “home remedies” can help you, give them a try!
Alcoholism and addiction are also very real and very dangerous. And many people suffer from dual diagnosis, be it social anxiety and alcoholism or something else. If you or someone you know needs help for an addiction, New Start is here for you. Call us at 855-737-7363 or reach out to us on our live chat.