Background: Several hypotheses exist to account for the higher than normal rate of alcoholism in individuals with high trait anxiety (or anxiety disorders). Most of these suggest that the practice of drinking alcohol to reduce anxiety leads to an increased risk of alcoholism in vulnerable individuals. The first assumption of the hypothesis is that anxious individuals use alcohol to cope with their anxiety. Few studies have examined this issue systematically, and none have used a nonanxious matched control group.
Methods: Twenty-three individuals with high social anxiety and 23 nonsocially anxious matched controls were included in the study. Groups were similar on demographic variables and alcohol use. All participants were queried regarding the use of alcohol to cope, the practice of avoiding social situations if alcohol was not available, and the degree of relief attained by alcohol. Participants also were asked about using alcohol in 11 specific situations.
Results: The socially anxious group was significantly more likely than controls to report using alcohol to feel more comfortable in social situations and to avoid social situations if alcohol was unavailable. They also reported a greater degree of relief of anxiety from alcohol. Exploratory analyses revealed that socially anxious individuals reported using alcohol more to cope with social interactions than with social performance situations.
Conclusions: Individuals high in social anxiety deliberately drink alcohol to cope with their social fears. They report that alcohol is moderately effective at reducing their anxiety, which is seemingly sufficient to allow them to endure social situations. The data support the first assumption of the self-medication hypothesis—that alcohol is used to reduce social discomfort in socially anxious individuals; however, the study was not designed to address the veracity of the self-medication hypothesis as a whole. Results can help guide future studies that examine the relationship between social anxiety and alcohol.