You just found out your boss wants you to represent the company at an upcoming conference where you’ll know absolutely no one. What’s your reaction?
A) Great! An opportunity to share my ideas and meet some interesting new people.
B) I need a drink.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and writes a blog about addiction. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes a teen drug rehab at The Right Step and Promises young adult rehab.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
If your answer is B, you’re far from alone. Many of us find being in the spotlight unnerving. This social anxiety can range from butterflies in the stomach to social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, in which the person goes to great lengths to avoid all or certain social situations and can suffer extreme distress even when anticipating them.
In any of these cases, alcohol can seem like the solution for soothing that anxiety, but what’s more likely is you’ll end up creating the situation you feared in the first place — public embarrassment. One drink lowers our defenses against having another, as anyone who has “loosened up” before a party and ended up passed out in the corner can attest.
Even if things go well, you could be setting a precedent that turns into dependence. Say, for example, that you have a couple of cocktails before making a presentation, and you end up doing a good job. Will you be telling yourself, “I’m better at this than I thought” or will you be saying, “That vodka really worked. I’ll have to remember that for next time.”
An estimated 2-13 percent of the U.S. population has social anxiety disorder, and of those, about 20 percent develop a problem with alcohol in an attempt to deal with the fear, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The irony in this self-medicating is that research suggests that alcohol may feel as though it is helping but it can actually make our response to anxiety-provoking events tougher to get over — and can lead us to consume more alcohol in reaction.
Facing Down Your Fear
So if alcohol is a bad choice for dealing with social anxiety, what are some good ones?
Seek professional help. If your social anxiety is long-lasting, out of proportion to the situation, or interfering with your ability to live your life, you may have social anxiety disorder, and it’s important to reach out for help. The good news is that it can be treated. Among the most successful options are cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help you restructure the negative thinking underlying your social anxiety, and a variety of medications that can help control brain chemistry as well as physical symptoms such as blushing, sweating, shaking, racing heart and anxiety attacks.
Challenge your thinking. A key part of social anxiety is distorted thinking. You’re convinced you’ll be judged and found lacking, that all eyes will be on you, that you’ll humiliate yourself. Realize that this is anticipation, not reality. When you find yourself mired in negative thinking, flip it around. Allow yourself to imagine everything going beautifully. It sounds simplistic, but it’s true: If we allow ourselves to believe the best can happen, we increase our chances of making it so.
Practice being social. Lack of social skills can be a factor in your anxiety, so practice. Build your comfort level by starting small and slow: chat with the person making your coffee, say hello to the mail carrier, smile at people as you walk down the street. Then work your way up: speak out in the meeting, invite someone to lunch, join a club. If you dread public speaking (and that’s most of us), consider joining an organization such as Toastmasters, which provides a supportive environment in which to practice and chip away at your fear. Each success in your social practice will pave the way for more. Each setback will help you figure out what might work better next time.
Know you’re not alone. If there’s one thing you can bet on it’s that you’re not the only nervous one in social settings. Rather than worry about what others think of you, keep in mind that they are probably worrying about what you think of them. Put the focus outward rather than on yourself, and do what you can to set others at ease. If you ever are in a situation where you feel you’re being judged negatively, however, keep in mind that this likely says more about their need to tamp down their insecurity by elevating themselves than it does about you.
Get educated. A variety of techniques exist for reducing anxiety, including meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and muscle relaxation. Rather than relying on liquid courage, explore ways you can get in better touch with your body and control runaway emotions and thoughts.
Observe yourself. Keep a list of social situations that bother you and what you are feeling at the time. Is your anxiety generalized or is it just certain events that you actively avoid? Is public speaking your chief fear? Do you dread eating in public or meeting new people? By better understanding your triggers, you can work more efficiently to overcome them.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Everyone, truly everyone has said something they’d give anything to take back the moment it left their lips, or told a joke that’s fallen flat, or literally fallen flat themselves. If you do something to embarrass yourself, keep it light and others will too.
Ditch the quest for perfection. A drink may feel like the only way to find the courage to put yourself out there, but a better strategy is to come to terms with some truths: everyone is anxious from time to time, not everyone is going to like you no matter what you do, and we all make mistakes.
Make friends with anxiety. Anxiety is an essential part of our makeup that has kept us alive through the eons by alerting us to dangers and spurring us to take action. The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate anxiety but to manage it.