Facing Social Drinking Anxiety

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Imagine, the weekend is approaching. After a whole week of hard work, all you want is to relax and disengage from the many thoughts and concerns of your daily life.  However, right before leaving work on Friday, you may feel a bit uncomfortable when asked: “what are you doing this weekend?”

An innocuous question for many, it could be perceived by others as a social challenge. “Just hanging out with some friends”, you’ll answer.  The moment comes and you’re sitting on a stool at the pub, the barman asking “what can I get you”? You ask yourself if you really want that beer.

I’ve never been much of a drinker. In fact, I have started drinking more than twice a week only in the last couple of years. The reason? I felt I needed to blend in. As mentioned on the Alcoholism Guide website, participating in drinking alcohol can make people feel more easily accepted as they are following the pack, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that.

There are many social practices that bring people together, and finding some common ground with others is often constructive not only for us but for society as well.  However, the reasons that push people to conform to said social practices are various, and not all of them are positive.

When I realised I was drinking to overcome my social anxiety, I powerfully felt the need for a change. I became painfully aware of my personal inhibitions starting to fade as the number of empty pints on my table increased, and as my physical sensations blurred, I visibly relaxed, my confidence increased and I didn’t feel like an outsider anymore.

I’ve recently been working at the pub opposite my house. I needed a part-time job to go along with my studies, and, looking for a challenge that would allow me to go out of my comfort zone, I applied and got the job there.

It felt strange at first. Suddenly, it was almost as if I was sitting in the first row of a well-orchestrated play in which everybody knew their roles, some better than others.  I met all sorts of people there. Some of them were outgoing all along, they just got louder after a few drinks. Others underwent a complete transformation, being shy and reserved at first, they would join other groups and sit with them without even introducing themselves.  There were the shy drinkers as well. People who, despite the alcohol, remained seated at the bar, just smiling more than usual.

We all need to relax and we all need human contact. For some of us, that is really hard to achieve without an external push.

I can’t count the times I felt I needed to run away from a class at university for no apparent reason, or the sudden stomach aches when my mates and I were friendly chatting about where to go on a Saturday evening.  I was anxious with many people, even those close to me, and when I had to take a stand on something, I tried to avoid the problem instead, sneaking my way out of the situation.

When drinking, on the other hand, all of these things were so easy to overcome, so natural. I was so comfortable at university parties and so talkative with my friends and to strangers as well. It was a solution, and it was working like a charm.

However, during my new job I started witnessing those dynamics in others as well, this time from an external perspective. I saw people shying away from the conversation and others drinking as fast as possible to bridge the gap and “catch up” with their friends.

It was then that the penny dropped and I saw drinking from a different point of view. And it was then that I decided that I would stop drinking until I’d found the strength of facing social situations without that “extra help”.

I started researching about drinking and, reading the NHS site, I found some distressing figures. Between 2014/15 there were over a million estimated hospital admissions related to alcohol-caused diseases, an increase of 3% more than 2013/14. Also, in 2014 alone, 6,831 deaths were recorded in relation to alcohol consumption.  Worrying numbers for something that should be meant to help us relax and enjoy the moment.

However, drinking per se is not a negative thing for your body. On the contrary, moderately drinking alcohol has a reputation for being healthy for the heart. According to an article from the CNN published last April, a glass of wine for women per day and two glasses for men is widely linked to a lower risk of heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease.

It’s when a lot of people, especially young ones, drink for the wrong reasons, that something starts to be worrying.

A paper published by the American Sociological Association in 2012 reported that females, students of colour, LGBTQ students and poorer students who binge drink felt more satisfied with their experience at college than their colleagues who didn’t.

They admitted they wouldn’t want to drink that much, but since that was what everyone did, they followed the social norm because they felt the pressure to do so.

Like them, many of us drink “socially”, because it is what is expected from us from our peers.

But what is the solution then? How can we naturally overcome our social anxiety and feel at ease with others?

There are potentially unlimited solutions, and many of them are very intimate and personal. The way we choose to face our fears varies substantially from one person to the other, and therefore there’s no universal answer.

What I found could help, in my case, was meditation.

I have been practising different forms of meditation for a few years now, and their benefits are great. Being mindful of yourself and others can improve your life’s quality substantially if you let it. Grounding techniques help you establish a solid connection between us and the Earth, between you and your fellow humans.

It’s no magic though. Meditation helped me greatly in various stages of my life, but it’s a lengthy and slow process, filled with wins, but also defeats. A succession of “falling and getting back onto your feet” steps.

Many times I saw my clarity and resolve – gained through mindful practice – shatter in front of the reality of life.  I often got up from my meditation session in the park thinking “I know what to do now”, only to find myself defeated when stepping back into the complex structure of human society.

Nevertheless, I’ve also experienced success on my path. Before exams and meaningful challenges of my life, I always found time to meditate and tried hard to ground myself, looking for that strength within me.  And I did find it. I faced difficult situations with a steady step and a clear mind, and in those moments I reminded myself of my true potential.

Trying to apply these practices to feel more socially accepted was no different, and equally hard.

The first couple of weeks without drinking  I walked into parties with my anxiety levels under control, but as people started to drink and become more uninhibited, I felt the urge of grabbing a bottle and numb my senses again.  A few times I was really tempted to fill my glass, and some of them I could still not manage the pressure and left the venue prematurely.

It’s been little more than a month now with no alcohol in my system, and every time I know I have to attend a party, class or conference, I plan in advance and find some time to meditate.  An article published earlier this year in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology showed how mindfulness practice can significantly reduce alcohol consumption among at-risk drinkers.  I can’t say I was an at-risk drinker, and many social drinkers aren’t either. However, the point behind this research and my attempt to learn from it is to reach one’s inner strength, in order to become free of social constrictions.  The study scientifically proved that a single brief session of mindfulness resulted in significant reductions in alcohol consumption. Imagine what daily mindful activity could help you achieve.

I gave my resignation from the pub last week and have been sober for a month now, practising meditation as much as I can.  When going for interviews, social events or conventions, I still feel a weight on my stomach, but it’s much lighter now and doesn’t stop me from doing what I have to anymore. And if I must take a stand in group activities or with my friends, I now do that, despite my anxiety. I still do feel the urge to drink to be “part of the crowd” every once in a while, but as time passes, the confidence in my social skills is slowly growing.

I haven’t overcome my social anxiety completely by replacing drinking with meditation, but surely I have taken steps towards a more mindful way of living. Will I deny myself a glass of wine a day for the rest of my life? Probably not, but I’ll start drinking again only when I’ll have fully mastered my social fears.

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