What is Social Anxiety?
Anxiety and fear are natural human reactions designed to keep us safe from perceived danger or threats. When we feel threatened or stressed, our bodies start to feel physical sensations of anxiety. This is a normal—and even healthy—response to perceived danger.
But what happens when we experience these reactions without any real threat or danger involved? One of the most common forms of this anxiety not induced by danger is known as “social anxiety.”
There are gradations of social anxiety, ranging from general feelings of discomfort in social situations and a diagnosable anxiety disorder. And if you’re in addiction recovery, you have likely experienced some form of social anxiety or suffer from an anxiety disorder.
What’s the Difference Between General Anxiety & Anxiety Disorders?
General anxiety is expressed physically in our bodies. These sensations can include:
- Quickened heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- Tense muscles
- Sweaty palms
- Trembling hands or legs
With normal occurring anxiety, these sensations go away when the perceived threat or danger is gone. But social anxiety disorder is a different story.
Social anxiety disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that involves intense symptoms concerning social activity and interaction. It often makes the routines and activities of everyday life difficult for those who suffer from it. Such disorders can cause a range of symptoms, including:
- Intense, excessive worry
- Fear that never seems to go away
- Interference with daily activities
- Difficult to control emotions
- Worry, apprehension, and uneasiness when there’s nothing to fear
- Avoidance of places, people, or situations
The symptoms, which can persist over a long period of time, are generally out of proportion to the actual danger.
What’s the Link Between Addiction and Social Anxiety?
According to an article in BMC Psychiatry, people seeking alcohol or drug abuse treatment have a high likelihood of also suffering from social anxiety disorder. Many more experience general anxiety, but some studies show 56% of those in recovery diagnosed with social anxiety disorder.
The article above explains that “while the causal relationship remains unclear, concurrent social anxiety seems to lead to social isolation and depression in those recovering from substance dependency.” This vulnerability, of course, results in a higher risk of relapse.
On the other hand, a social anxiety disorder may have been the main cause that someone turned to alcohol or substance abuse in the first place. According to the journal of European Psychiatry, the risk of addiction is even higher for those who experience a social anxiety disorder before they are fifteen years old.
Other possible reasons for increased risk include:
- Substance use and abuse can give temporary relief from anxiety-induced emotional distress
- Prescription drugs prescribed to ease pain can offer short-term relief from physical anxiety symptoms
- Severe psychological cases of anxiety disorders can compel individuals to self-medicate through substance abuse or other destructive behavior
Types of Social Anxiety Disorders
Social anxiety disorder is a type of general anxiety disorder. But there are many other types of disorders that could contribute to a person’s development. The most common types of anxiety disorders diagnosed today include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Severe distress about everyday concerns
- Acute stress disorder (ASD): A severe form of anxiety that occurs immediately after a traumatic event; symptoms generally last a month or less
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A form of anxiety that develops after a traumatic event; ASD symptoms that persist beyond a month usually indicate PTSD
- Panic disorder: Spontaneous panic attacks
- Social anxiety: Extreme self-consciousness around others and social situations
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): An intense form of anxiety that causes uncontrollable thoughts that lead to compulsive behaviors
- Phobias: Severe anxiety causing irrational fear of an object, situation, or animal
Although each of these anxiety disorders differ in key ways, they can all be debilitating and increase your risk of substance abuse. And since drug or alcohol use are often in social settings, having social anxiety disorders drastically increases this correlation.
Healing and Recovery with Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is a serious matter and is far more than just nerves on a first date. It should also not to be confused with mere shyness or introversion. Social anxiety disorder is a recognized condition that usually requires professional treatment.
While it’s true that many people manage their stress and anxiety independently, if you also suffer from a substance abuse disorder, it’s imperative to seek help.
Therapy, for example, from a trained professional can offer insights into your disorder. Talk therapy, exposure therapy, and group therapy are all helpful ways to start your healing journey. Therapy can…
- Help pinpoint key anxiety triggers
- Equip you with coping strategies
- Challenge negative thought patterns
- Build new thought patterns for healthy living
Still, there are many things you can do outside of formal treatment to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder. If you are actively receiving treatment, your therapist may even recommend some of these methods in or outside of your sessions. Here are some general suggestions to help you to overcome the symptoms of social anxiety:
- Explore what triggers your social anxiety
- Examine and challenge negative thoughts or beliefs
- Take small steps toward social interactions, like planning a small get-together with trusted friends
- Practice social interactions with trusted loved ones
- Engage regularly in relaxation techniques like yoga, stretching, or breathing exercises
Most people don’t have to think twice about grocery shopping, going out on a date, eating in a restaurant, or having a conversation with a coworker. But for people with social anxiety disorder, these scenarios provoke extreme anxiety and distress—especially for those with co-occurring disorders like substance abuse disorder or addictive patterns.
If you are one of the many people who has suffered from social anxiety disorder, there is still hope for you! Overcoming the symptoms of social anxiety through trusted friends, community resources, and professional treatment can all help you walk our your healing journey.
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