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Dealing with Social Anxiety in Recovery

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Dealing with Social Anxiety in Recovery

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.

social anxiety

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:

  • Work to Improve your Self-Esteem

    Low self-esteem and social anxiety are not the same thing. But social anxiety can lead to low self-esteem. Many people who struggle with the disorder feel that they’re less than human/normal/perfect because of their inability to participate in functions that others have no problem with. So, they’ll chip away at their own self-esteem. If this sounds like you, then doing things to improve your self-esteem can help overall. Try to reassess your expectations of social situations and work to make those expectations realistic.

    I completely understand that you may not be able to convince yourself that people aren’t going to stare and comment when you walk into a room. But continuously reminding yourself that that expectation isn’t realistic and replacing it with one that is can help. Self-esteem can also be improved by refraining from comparison. That means not comparing yourself to other people as well as past versions of yourself. Today’s version of you is all you need to think about. Maybe last month’s version of you was unable to go out to breakfast with an old friend. But you can’t compare yourself to that old version of yourself. Doing so will only continue to lower your self-esteem and give fuel to your social anxiety.

  • Stay in the Moment

    It’s very easy for people in recovery to get feelings of anxiety when doing things like attending a fellowship meeting, sharing their story, or participating in therapy, even if they don’t struggle with social anxiety. The best thing to do is to try to stay in the moment rather than fearing the future.

    For example, let’s say you’re going to an AA meeting and you feel anxious because you’ll likely have to talk to people and potentially even answer questions about yourself, your addiction, and your recovery. Obsessing over those things will only make it worse. It’s completely normal for people at fellowship meetings to listen to other people as well as share their own experiences. That’s what makes it a fellowship. Instead of trying to predict what types of interactions you’ll encounter, try to just stay in the moment and deal with these situations as they come. Don’t expect other people to come up to you and start talking. Instead, let it just happen and take each question or comment as it comes.

  • Talk to Someone

    I realize that we just spent a significant amount of time addressing the stigma around mental illness and the affect it has on seeking help. But allowing a therapist or counselor to help with your social anxiety can be incredibly effective. Therapists are trained to see all of the nuances of mental disorders like social anxiety. And they can help you navigate through them as well. It may be hard to admit you need help. It can be uncomfortable and triggering to allow yourself to be vulnerable and let someone else help you. But there is strength is asking for help. A therapist will give you tools and methods that you can use on your own to combat social anxiety outside of their office.

  • Practice Doing the Things that Trigger your Anxiety

    Bear with me. We all know the phrase “Practice makes perfect.” But let’s establish that perfect isn’t a real thing in the human world. It doesn’t exist. The notion that perfection is attainable will only fuel low self-esteem and social anxiety because we’re criticizing ourselves for not reaching something that isn’t actually reachable. But practice does make better. Forcing yourself to be exposed to the things that trigger your anxiety will eventually lessen the strength of that anxiety. But you don’t have to start big. Instead, try imagining a social interaction that creates anxiety. Let it create that anxiety in your mind and keep thinking about it until the anxiety drops. Then allow yourself to be rational.

    For example, imagine going to a party. Think about walking into the party. If that image triggers anxiety, let it happen. Keep picturing yourself walking into that party until your anxiety dies down. Then address why you’re anxious. “People are staring at me. They can see I’m anxious.” Now, introduce rational thought. Other people typically can’t see how you’re feeling. They can’t actually see anxiety. It’s an internal feeling only felt by you. Keep practicing those images until those rational thoughts become legitimate and habitual for you. Then you’ll be able to practice in the “real world.”

social anxiety

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.

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