A little liquid courage can take the edge off anxiety, but too much liquid courage can cause all sorts of problems. Self-medicating with the anxiety-reducing properties of alcohol has been put forward as one possible explanation for why people with social anxiety disorder also have higher rates of alcohol use disorders.
Of course, alcohol can have a paradoxical effect in social situations. Although it makes people less socially anxious, it can also make them less socially effective – which could cause them more anxiety in the long-run.
So a group of researchers in Germany decided to study how alcohol affected people’s social anxiety and social performance, and to see whether the effects of alcohol differed for people with and without social anxiety disorder.
To do this, the researchers recruited 62 people with social anxiety and 60 people without the condition, then asked them to give a speech. Predictably, this task made the people with social anxiety anxious – significantly more so than the other participants.
Before giving their speeches, people were offered a drink. Each participant received one of three different kinds of beverages: orange juice, an alcoholic drink, or an alcoholic drink placebo.
After giving the speeches, participants were then asked to rate their performance and their anxiety levels. The people who had observed the speech were also asked to rate it.
In general, it turned out that people with social anxiety were overly harsh on themselves – they tended to estimate their performance lower than observers did.
When the people with social anxiety drank alcohol prior to the speech, they reported significantly less anxiety. Interestingly, the same was not true for the non-anxious group – starting off their speech with a swig of alcohol didn’t ultimately make them any less anxious. Both groups, however, were rated as less competent by the observers when they’d had an alcoholic drink.
In other words, it may be that people with social anxiety disorder are especially sensitive to the anxiety-relieving effects of alcohol, even as their social performance declines like everyone else’s. Although it remains to be seen how these results would transfer into other types of social situation than giving a speech, this study suggests that by making people with social anxiety less anxious but more socially incompetent, coping with the disorder using alcohol is counterproductive in the long-term.