Social Anxiety & Substance Use Disorder Were Linked In A New Study & Here’s What You Should Know

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At one point or another, you’ve probably met someone who identifies as “a social drinker” — you may even identify as one yourself. People drink casually for a host of reasons: to help them unwind, because they enjoy the taste, and even as a “social lubricant” to help feel less awkward and make socializing a little easier. While there’s nothing wrong with responsibly sipping some wine or beer at a party, alcohol also has the potential to be misused, particularly when it comes to dealing with social anxiety. A new study found that social anxiety disorder may be linked to substance use disorder, and specifically alcohol use, that weren’t reflected in other types of anxiety disorders.

Lots of people feel nervous when meeting someone new or entering new social situations, but social anxiety disorder is distinguished by a constant fear towards a variety of social situations where the person “is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others,” the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) writes. A person with the disorder may be anxious about embarrassing themselves to the point where it interferes with their ability to live their life, and NIMH estimates that roughly 12 percent of American adults experience social anxiety disorder in their lifetime. The new research, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, focused on understanding how the disorder might affect an individual’s relationship with alcohol and their drinking patterns.

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Researchers interviewed roughly 2,800 adult twins, assessing level of alcohol consumption and mental health factors including panic disorder, specific phobias and agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety disorder. People with the disorder were associated with a higher risk for potentially developing alcoholism later in life, while the other studied anxiety disorders didn’t appear to be risk factors. Alcohol abuse also had the most significant link with social anxiety disorder.

This link is significant because of how it could affect treatment for both disorders. "Many individuals with social anxiety are not in treatment. This means that we have an underutilized potential, not only for reducing the burden of social anxiety, but also for preventing alcohol problems," study author Dr. Fartein Ask Torvik said in a statement. "Cognitive behavioral therapy with controlled exposure to the feared situations has shown good results."

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Cognitive behavioral therapy, otherwise known as CBT, is a type of psychotherapy that helps patients by altering patterns of harmful and unhelpful thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. The therapy largely focuses on solutions that help patients question and confront “distorted cognitions and change destructive patterns of behavior,” according to Psychology Today, as well as to develop coping skills. It’s been proven effective as a treatment for a several mental health issues, including anxiety disorders, depression, and eating disorders.

Based on the study results, treating social anxiety and helping prevent it with therapies like CBT could potentially have the benefit of limiting alcohol abuse in patients. The relationship the study pinpointed between excessive drinking and social anxiety suggest further research on the topic is necessary, especially if people are drinking to deal with their mental health instead of seeking mental health treatment.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).