Linda Lewis Griffith

How to cope with social anxiety

Are you petrified of social interactions? Do you break into a sweat just thinking about giving a speech? Are your symptoms interfering with your life? Then you may be suffering from social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia).

The National Institute of Mental Health defines social anxiety as “a disabling anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social or performance situations.”

Social phobia is much more than everyday shyness. Shyness is a nearly universal reaction; nine out of 10 say they’ve been socially inhibited at one time in their lives. Only 40 percent say it holds them back.

Social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, affects 15 million Americans, about 2 to 13 percent of the population. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the average age of onset is 13. Thirty-six percent of people with the disorder report symptoms for 10 years before seeking treatment. It is the third most prevalent psychiatric disorder, after alcohol dependence and depression.

Social anxiety is closely linked to alcoholism. A study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 20 percent of patients with social anxiety also abuse drugs and alcohol.

It’s easy to see why folks who are acutely anxious have a drink to calm themselves down.

“People probably believe that self-medication works,” said Dr. James Bolton, lead author of a study in the August 2011 Archives of General Psychiatry.

Of the 34,653 American adults in Dr. Bolton’s research, 13 percent acknowledged using drugs or alcohol within the past year to reduce their anxiety, fear or panic about a situation. Nearly one-quarter said they’d self-medicated with drugs.

But that strategy often backfired. Those who self-medicated were two to five times more likely to develop a drug or alcohol problem within three years. Ten percent who self-medicated with drugs developed a drug problem. And subjects with symptoms of anxiety who did not yet meet the criteria for full-blown social anxiety experienced a worsening of symptoms if they self-medicated.

The takeaway message is clear. It’s important to get treatment for social anxiety. Alcohol and drugs aren’t the answer.

HOW TO TREAT SOCIAL ANXIETY

Get help. Talk to your family doctor or an expert in the health or psychological fields. You don’t have to suffer.

Avoid alcohol and drugs. Steer clear of liquor and all recreational drugs. They interfere with your ability to monitor your anxiety. Plus, they run the risk of becoming addictive.

Take medication. The most common medications for social anxiety are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. They were initially developed as antidepressants, but they’re also effective in alleviating anxiety. Get into therapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy may involve exposure treatment, cognitive restructuring and social skills training. Other strategies include relaxation techniques or stress management skills.

Join AA. If you or your loved ones are concerned about your drinking, consider attending AA. The program will support your sobriety while providing a safe environment for addressing your fears.

Get more information. Contact the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, http://www.adaa.org, or the National Institute of Mental Health, http://www.nimh.nih.gov.

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