When I was in college, I went on a road trip with a car full of friends. On our way to a conference, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Nashville, Tennessee. Hitting the town with our brand new cowboy boots, we ended up with a great view of a concert and countdown ’til midnight.
It was my first New Year’s Eve away from home and I was wary, keeping an eye on my surroundings. Even though it was an exciting evening, I wished I could just relax a little bit and enjoy the concert and fireworks. As we anxiously waited for midnight, I texted a friend about my worries. He sent a quick response that said: “Just wait ’til your 21. Then you can get a few beers and loosen up a little bit.”
Something didn’t sit quite right with me when I read that reply. But I didn’t think about it too much, until I turned 21. On the night of my 21st birthday, I ordered a beer for the first time. When the waiter took my order, he laughed, “It’s your first drink right?” and winked. I surprised him when I said it was my first drink. Shocked, he exclaimed, “How did you make it this long without it?”
When I turned 21, I quickly became aware of the American drinking culture. It seemed that when tough situations came up, the cultural response was to quickly recommend alcohol: Long paper to write? Better pour a glass of wine. Conference presentation? Reward yourself with a flight of craft beer at the end of a long day. Fellow students joked, “Thank goodness you turned 21 before your final year of college – you’ll need all the shots you can get your hands on.”
When it came time to relax and spend time with friends, it seemed that alcohol became a necessity. I found myself swimming in alcohol. Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter are crowded with the anthems of friends who rely on alcohol to make it through the work week: “I love the days when the only choice I have to make is red or white,” friends write after a long week. “I am woman, hear me pour,” is the anthem of others.
I’ve found that drinking wine is considered sexy and alcohol is considered a sure way to “improve” one’s personality. For many that I know, coffee dates have been replaced by wine sipping. I’m often encouraged by friends to “treat myself” and order a cocktail with dinner. I even began to think that my ability to throw back a beer makes me more welcome to social events I’d been excluded from before -like being invited to parties and even drinking with the guys.
But when I think back on that text from a friend on New Year’s Eve, it seems that the situation today’s culture readily offers alcohol as the antidote to is the dreaded awkward social event.
Why is alcohol the go-to social solution for situations that are uncomfortable?
A recent study from The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) found that 20% of people dealing with social anxiety also suffer from some sort of alcohol abuse. Because alcohol is easy to find in most social situations, it’s understandably accessible coping strategy.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with having a drink or two when you’re out with friends. I myself love a good flight of beers and conversation. But alcohol should never be used to mask a deeper longing in your heart. Quelling the fear that rises in our gut in a social situation with another glass of whiskey isn’t going to help us deal with underlying issues.
In fact, we’ll often up with two problems instead of one – the root of our social anxiety and substance dependence.
Whether you’re gathering up the courage to dance like no one is watching, or to go talk to a person you’ve never met, there are alternative options to tackling social anxiety rather than just reaching for another glass, such as making sure you’re on a balanced sleeping schedule and getting on a regular exercise routine. Things like a self-care and balance can seem like simple solutions to tackling social anxiety. But in the trenches of social anxiety, sometimes simple solutions are the ones that resonate the loudest in our hearts.
Dig down into the roots of social anxiety
Do you drink so that you’ll fit in easier? Invest into intentional friendships. Are you nervous to try something new? Try something where there will be an activity you can focus your attention on – maybe it’s a hike or going on a road trip to somewhere new. Don’t be afraid to admit to your friends that you’re a little nervous. Chances are that you’ll talk to someone who is nervous too.
If you’ve taken a look at your habits and realize that you’re using alcohol as a social crutch, don’t be afraid to examine the root of the issue and seek alternative ways to deal with hard things in your life besides telling the bartender you want another round.
An issue for men and women
The days where we view alcohol use and abuse as just a men’s health issue are long gone. Before recent times, women have been more moderate drinkers than men. However, a report from a recent British medical journal suggests that the millennial generation is closing the drinking gender gap. But the playing field concerning drinking is not leveling because men are drinking less these days—rather, women are now drinking almost as much alcohol as men.
But there’s a major issue at the heart of drinking, especially for women. Women’s bodies don’t process alcohol in the same way that men’s bodies do. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, women can achieve higher blood alcohol content levels and become more impaired than men who drink the same amount. Women also suffer a greater risk than men when it comes to organ damage related to alcohol, trauma from alcohol-related car accidents and interpersonal violence. So while women may be drinking the same amount as men, they’re suffering greater consequences.
Telling women and men that they can enjoy massive amounts of alcohol to cover up the emptiness they are experiencing in a consumerist, work-driven world isn’t liberating. It’s paralyzing. The modern millennial juggles work, school, family, and other commitments—but has to numb themselves with a large glass of wine at the end of the day.
Don’t be afraid to reach out
It’s time to sincerely consider what our drinking is saying about our culture. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to alcohol, you can find more information about alcoholism at Alcoholics Anonymous.
If you’re struggling with social anxiety, don’t be afraid to go to professional counseling – there’s no shame in asking for help. Be honest and vulnerable with a therapist and tell them about your relationship with alcohol. When you sit down with a counselor, you’ll be able to identify what kind of thoughts you’re having in social situations that are causing anxiety.