Social anxiety has been a constant in my life for as long as I can remember.
As I have written about here, I grew up with an intense fear of people.
However, step by step, I learned how to manage anxiety and social anxiety. Especially my years at university were a period of immense personal growth. Reading, journaling, and exercise were pivotal to my success.
During my first semesters, however, I used a crutch to socialize – alcohol.
I used it to calm myself down when I spend the evenings with other students at the campfire. I used it during evenings at my friend’s house to relax and talk with less inhibition. Of course, parties were possible only when I warmed up a little beforehand with some liquid courage.
If you, too, suffer from social anxiety, you might have similar experiences with alcohol.
Sadly, alcohol dependency and social anxiety often go hand in hand. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America states that 20% of people with social anxiety also suffer from alcohol abuse.
If you have social anxiety, be aware that drinking might fix your social anxiety in the short term but worsens it in the long run.
Why is this so?
That is the question I will answer in this article.
We will start with having a quick look at how alcohol impacts your brain.
Then we dive into the fascinating relationship between social anxiety and alcohol. A relationship that psychologist and author of the highly recommended book “How To Be Yourself” Ellen Hendriksen describes as “‘complicated.”
Ready? Then let’s get started.
How Alcohol Changes Your Brain
Surely you know about alcohol’s harmful effects on your body.
Maybe you are thinking about your liver now.
But did you know that booze also exerts powerful, harmful effects on your brain?
I already mentioned that alcohol directly impacts anxiety.
By changing the chemistry of your brain, specifically by altering the levels of neurotransmitters. What are neurotransmitters, you ask? Imagine them as being messengers that send signals through your body. They are responsible for your thought processes, your behaviors, and emotions.
Alcohol affects both excitatory neurotransmitters and inhibitory neurotransmitters. Two of the most relevant neurotransmitters are GABA and glutamate.
Let’s look at each in turn.
How Alcohol Impacts GABA
The neurotransmitter GABA is your brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter.
GABA’s role is to reduce neurons’ activity, thereby increasing relaxation, reducing stress, and putting you in a more balanced and calm mood. Many medications interact with GABA and GABA receptors to promote relaxation, anxiety reduction, and pain relief, among other things.
GABA is ubiquitously found in plants. The highest concentrations are in spinach, sweet potatoes, and cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and kale.
Low GABA activity in the brain can lead to anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.
How does alcohol impact this brain chemical?
Turns out it doesn’t impact GABA directly but indirectly by binding to its receptor cells. That means alcohol mimics GABA in your brain.
The effect is two-fold.
At first, alcohol relaxes you by stimulating GABA receptors. However, in the long run, it increases anxiety and tension because it can lead to the desensitization of GABA receptors.
And this, in turn, can lead you to want to drink more.
Sounds like a vicious cycle? Likely because it is.
However, alcohol not only leads to unnatural GABA levels in the brain. It also inhibits your brain’s primary excitatory neurotransmitter’s receptor – glutamate.
And how this impacts your anxiety, which we will look at next.
How Alcohol Impacts Glutamate
You might have heard of glutamate in the context of Chinese food. You know the stuff that gives you a headache after you dined in that Asian restaurant down the street. But did you know that glutamate is one of your main neurotransmitters?
Glutamate’s role in your body is to increase brain activity and energy levels.
Generally speaking, more glutamate means more anxiety. Less glutamate means less stress.
Drinking alcohol leads to a decrease in glutamate levels. And with lowered glutamate levels, your feel more at ease.
As a side-note: you also need glutamate to remember things. Hence the memory loss you might experience after night with too much booze.
Why Do These Changes In Brain Chemistry Lead To Anxiety?
As we have just seen, alcohol influences how two of the most prevalent neurotransmitters in your brain work.
To simplify, you could say that you change your brain’s chemistry as you get drunk.
Because your body is smart, it registers this imbalance in brain chemicals. It tries to correct this imbalance by attempting to bring GABA levels down, and glutamate levels back up. The result of this is that you end up with unnaturally low GABA levels and a spike in glutamate once you stop drinking.
And what do low GABA and high glutamate levels imply?
How Does Repeated Drinking Impact Anxiety?
Maybe you already experienced the anxiety-inducing effects of alcohol on the day after a night with too many drinks.
I know, I have. Drinking alcohol gives me a stormy night and a lousy day after, filled with anxiety and a depressed mood.
You might be tempted to cure these negative feelings with a bit of booze, but as you might guess by now, that would only exacerbate the problem.
In fact, the more often you drink, the more severe your anxiety likely becomes.
Because the body – and that includes your brain – adapts to regular drinking.
Firstly your liver cells produce more enzymes to metabolize alcohol. Now that you metabolize alcohol more quickly, you need more to get the desired effect.
And secondly, the target receptors for alcohol in your brain adapt by decreasing their number.
Both of these processes can explain the development of alcohol tolerance.
After a night of drinking, it can take your brain a few days to go back to its normal state. If you have been drinking regularly for a while, you will have already developed a higher alcohol tolerance. In that case, it could take your brain weeks to regain its correct chemical balance. In severe cases, months, and even years.
What Is The Relationship Between Social Anxiety And Drinking?
Now that we have seen how alcohol impacts your brain’s structures let’s explore the interrelationship between social anxiety and the tendency to drink.
While the science between social anxiety and alcohol dependency is still in its infancy, one thing seems to be sure: Shy people tend to be more predisposed to alcohol abuse.
Suppose you are an anxious person and use booze to calm your nerves. In that case, you are also likely to drink if you are nervous about social situations.
As we have seen, you are putting your brain into a chill mode when you drink. One study even showed that for every drink you have, social anxiety levels drop by 4%.
After you experienced how much easier social situations seem to be with the help of a bit of liquid courage, you start drinking in response to social anxiety. You think you need it. Over time it becomes a safety behavior—a crutch.
However, not everyone who is socially anxious uses alcohol the same.
The psychologist and author Ellen Hendriksen describes in her highly recommended book “How To Be Yourself” 4 kinds of socially anxious drinkers:
1. The Pre-Gamer
Suppose you use alcohol to self-medicate and ease your tension before going to a social event. In that case, you might fall into this category.
You have a drink or two before going to a social event that you fear.
It calms your nerves and relaxes you.
2. The After-Drinker
You use alcohol not to calm your nerves during an event but primarily after.
To drown your sorrows.
Usually, you are alone at home and ruminate about a situation where you felt uncomfortable.
You go through all your perceived “screw-ups” and “stupid behaviors” and criticize yourself for not being perfect or “behaving like a normal person.”
3. The Supersized Social Drinker
If you fall into this category, you usually don’t drink much.
However, in social situations, you drink excessively—more than you can handle. You feel like you can not go out and have fun without the booze.
4. The Almost Abstainer
This is you if you stay away from alcohol because you fear that drinking would lead you to do something stupid.
If you feel pressured, you might walk around with a drink in social situations but only for show. Or you sip on it a few times.
Do you see yourself in any of the 4 types?
Maybe you feel like you are a mix.
I know I am.
When I was a student, I was a “supersized social drinker”: I rarely drank, except for parties or hanging out with fellow students at the campfire. I almost always drank too much in these situations.
This stopped when I decided to stop drinking altogether for a few years.
However, once I reintroduced alcohol into my life, I found myself reaching for drinks in response to work stress and private struggles.
I could abstain from alcohol during social situations or drink very little. But at home, I would try to drown my sorrows.
Nowadays I don’t keep alcohol in the house. Instead of wine, I use a foam roller and acupuncture mat for calming down.
By giving up alcohol, I learned that there are other ways to deal with social anxiety.
For me, this included, first and foremost, exercise and journaling.
Others found success with therapy, mindfulness practices, or a combination of both.
Find what works for you.
Most importantly, develop awareness and decide that you will deal with your feelings instead of drowning them in alcohol.