Social Anxiety and Drug Use? Latest Research.

April 23, 2015

That First Drink, Hit, or Dose

For years, therapists and researchers have known that anxiety and drug use were linked. However, researchers recently discovered that initial drug use may have to do with social anxiety, which could lead to better treatment methods.

Arising from a Basic Need

One of the basic needs among humans is the desire to fit in. Several researchers and psychologists have picked up on it, as evidenced by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Aside from food, water and shelter, people need love, social belonging and acceptance by others. Well, that basic desire may lead to a little anxiety, which could lead to subsequently cause drug use, researchers from Case Western University believe.

“Almost half of the teenagers in the study experienced some form of social anxiety.” The researchers used 200 adolescents who had all entered addiction treatment centers in the Northeast. All of the participants seemed to have issues with the idea of fitting in, and responded well to exercises that helped lower social anxiety. The details of the study were published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Almost half of the teenagers in the study experienced some form of social anxiety. Approximately 15 percent of participants experienced social anxiety disorder. The researchers found that those with the disorder had it for two years before they began to abuse drugs or alcohol. The study authors found that the participants used drugs and alcohol as an outlet. As they grew increasingly anxious about not fitting in, they turned to substance abuse to alleviate their anxiety, and found it helped take their mind off those worries. Of course, the anxiety was still there when they sobered up, so they returned to drugs or alcohol until it developed into a dependency and an addiction. The researchers noted that heroin is becoming highly prevalent among youths in the area, and social anxiety may be one of the causes for this abuse. Luckily, tending to this anxiety may be the solution. “A sense of belonging is important to live sober and to thrive, and 12-step service offers a venue for those impaired by social anxiety,” lead author Maria Pagano, Ph.D., stated.

Reducing Inward Stress by Looking Outward

The researchers also examined adolescents who attended Alcoholics Anonymous to determine how much they participated in the meeting and helped set up, such as organizing chairs and laying out coffee and napkins. Participants who decided to help out at the meetings made a much smoother transition back into society after being in treatment. The study authors found that these participants were 50 percent less likely to relapse or end up in prison six months after being released from treatment. Participating in service activities can be very beneficial for youths with social anxiety issues, the researchers noted. Acts of participation allow people to be in a friendly, outgoing and welcoming environment where people can engage in conversations easily. They will not feel like they are harshly being judged or are being looked at in a negative light, which sometimes can happen to people with substance abuse disorders. This friendliness helps restore people’s confidence and give them a comforting sense of belonging.

“Acts of participation allow people to be in a friendly, outgoing and welcoming environment .”

“Low-intensity service is a more gentle way for youths to feel like they belong and to connect with other people who are facing similar challenges,” Pagano stated. “Getting active in helping others through AA motivates them to stay long enough to benefit from other AA activities and increase their chances of turning their life around toward a positive life trajectory.” Study participants who did not choose to volunteer at these meetings were at the highest risk for relapse. It can be incredibly helpful for people with substance abuse disorder to attend these meetings and get involved in them, as the risk for relapse is highest within the first six months after leaving treatment. The researchers concluded that people, particularly adolescents, should immediately be psychologically evaluated to determine if they are socially anxious. That way, they can be treated and guided toward proper practices after they leave.

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