Social anxiety can cause people to use safety mechanisms that decrease their levels of anxiety. These measures include avoiding eye contact, limiting verbal interactions, and laughing in a nervous way to appear at ease. Another common coping method for individuals with anxiety is alcohol consumption. In fact, rates of alcohol addiction are high among people with social phobia. It has been theorized that the relaxing effects of alcohol can minimize the feelings of anxiety. It is unclear how alcohol does this. To test whether or not alcohol influences the amount of safety mechanisms used by people with anxiety, Susan R. Battista of the Department of Psychology at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia recently led a study involving 88 participants with high levels of social anxiety.
The participants consumed either a non-alcoholic or alcoholic beverage prior to giving engaging in a social interaction with a trained interviewer. The interviewers did not know which condition the participants were from and were instructed to ask questions, engage in eye contact and verbally and physically communicate with the participants. Battista found that one of four safety mechanisms was affected by the alcohol. Specifically, the participants who drank alcohol talked for longer periods of time than those who did not. However, they did not increase eye contact, voluntarily respond to questions, or decrease nervous laughter. This suggests that alcohol does indeed affect some defenses associated with social anxiety, but not others.
Battista also discovered that the interviewers treated the alcohol participants more kindly than the non-alcohol participants. This was quite surprising because the interviewers were unaware of which participants consumed which beverage. But it was apparent that they engaged more and responded more positively with the participants that consumed alcohol than with those that did not. Battista believes this supports previous research suggesting that anxiety can be reciprocal. In other words, if a person projects a confident, warm, and inviting personality, they will be met with positive, engaging interactions. On the other hand, people who are unapproachable and anxious may be met with avoidance and negativity. “In sum, the current study found that alcohol dampened increases in social anxiety and lead socially anxious individuals to talk more during an interaction,” said Battista. This could explain why alcohol addiction is higher among socially anxious people than among the general population.
Battista, Susan R., Desiree MacDonald, and Sherry H. Stewart. The effects of alcohol on safety behaviors in socially anxious individuals. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology 31.10 (2012): 1074-094. Print.
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