So Many Are Self-medicating Their Social Anxiety
Shauna was a young, attractive, articulate woman. She also was very perfectionistic and self-critical. After every social encounter, she would analyze what she had said and done. She reviewed, questioned, obsessed, and critiqued every gesture and word she could remember coming out of her mouth. She was so critical that she seldom perceived the encounter going well. Relating to people became very adverse for her. She became very socially anxious. Can you blame her for not wanting to socialize?
Gerry Heisler, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with 38 years of experience as a clinician and assistant professor who has dealt with relationship issues.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Having social anxiety seems to be the norm today. Has now what used to be called shyness morphed into this more formal label? Very few people present themselves as being confident and stress-free as they begin social encounters. Often, a social situation is preceded by indifference or even dread. There are those who feel anxiety, and even panic when they try to approach and get to know someone. So many seem to need to self-medicate with alcohol, pot, or a harder drug, that there can be little question as to how an addiction can be triggered.
It’s little wonder so many more people are becoming socially anxious. There has been a proliferation of cell phones, computer-based chat rooms, texting, Twitter, internet dating services, and Facebook. Isn’t it common for many to start relationships today when they aren’t even face-to-face? Many begin by writing, texting, and twittering. It’s funny that so often this writing is called talking.
To actually begin to talk on a cell phone can be a huge step up in familiarity and represent a significantly higher rung achieved in the intimacy hierarchy. Ryan remarked…” Man, I know I’m getting somewhere with Mallory because we are actually talking now!”
Can you imagine the stress that can be engendered when you actually meet face to face and talk? People often aren’t that used to it. They are exploring new territory. Are you surprised so many are uncertain and anxious? They have little practice and lack confidence.
Some have social anxiety because they are like Jack. He was a bright, engaging college student in his late twenties. Every time he tried to approach a woman for a date, palpitations, dizziness, a dry mouth or headaches besieged him. He often had full-scale panic attacks, and his anxiety was so great that when he tried to converse, he wasn’t able to concentrate and was unsure of what to say.
Moreover, he often felt that his voice cracked and he feared he wouldn’t be able to talk at all. He became painfully aware of these symptoms. As he progressed from adolescence to adulthood, he not only had his problems to live with but also the anticipation of their occurrence. He felt inferior and depressed.
As a child and adolescent, he was raised to be modest and respect the opposite sex. “Never touch a girl in those places.”, he was admonished. He was embarrassed appearing nude in front of peers, and gym classes had been traumatic for him. Throughout his junior high and high school years, he was terrified of letting others view his body. He didn’t like the thought of showering in public and would race his class into the locker room so that he could get done before the others arrived. This shame persisted into his adult life, and he was especially upset about the idea of undressing in front of the opposite sex.
He became aware that though he felt like he couldn’t function when he was anxious, he indeed was still able to walk, talk and think. He wasn’t paralyzed by his feelings, as he sometimes feared he must be. By taking small steps, and acquiring social skills, Jack was able to learn to listen and converse more freely with peers; he explored his feelings about his own sexuality. He accepted that it was all right to have sexual drives, and he began to be able to cope with his massive feeling of shame and guilt about being sexual.
Importantly, his sense of well-being ceased being based on whether he was in a relationship. Before he would overreact if someone didn’t want to date him and would see this as proof that he was undesirable. With these rules in his head, it was no wonder that he was reluctant to try what he considered to be such a threatening ordeal. He started seeing the opportunity to approach people as simply being a chance to get to know them better. He realized that if they didn’t want to go out with him, it could be for a variety of reasons he couldn’t control, such as that they were busy or involved with others. “They’re missing a chance to get to know me.”, he’d remark when disappointed by a prospective date.
Jack grew up feeling ashamed, embarrassed, and uncomfortable about his sexual urges. Having these “dirty” impulses was undesirable, inconvenient, and his sexuality was and remained an unwanted instinctual drive. He just didn’t know what to do about it.
What can be done? Certainly, when you cope with stress in a way that creates more stress you aren’t coping well. When faced with a crisis, we have three alternatives: doing something that makes things better, doing something that keeps things neutral or static, or doing something that makes things worse. If you can’t do something good for yourself, at least stop doing things that make things worse. Would you want someone you love to cope with social situations by drinking?
It’s all right to feel socially anxious. In fact, I believe it’s to be expected. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to order your feelings like you do breakfast at a diner? Every day we experience the onset of hundreds of unwanted feelings. The duration hopefully is for a short period of time. Being able to tolerate these feelings and not catastrophize experiencing them is really important. When we begin to orchestrate our lives to avoid or escape having a feeling like social anxiety we can become trapped, depressed, and isolated.
This can only lead to more unwanted feelings. You can learn that though you may feel this, it won’t stop you from seeing, walking, talking, hearing, tasting, and feeling. You can feel that feeling and go on. You’re not paralyzed. Sometimes we become anxious because we are anxious. The anticipatory reaction can be worse than reality. How often have you dreaded going to that party, only to feel afterward to your surprise, you actually had a good time? Retell yourself this.