I thought this was an appropriate image to go along with our question this week:
Dear Dr. Bob,
I go out drinking several times a week with my friends, and often, even when I don’t go out drinking, I find myself having a few glasses of wine or a few beers when I get home from work. I have a hangover maybe once a week and I woke up last week wondering: is this bad? I literally spend a seventh of time in a state not considered to be ideal. But there’s nothing else to do! Everything as an adult revolves around drinking, and I don’t want to miss out on social situations. I feel like I’m at a point of too much, but everyone around me is drinking the exact same amount. Help!
- R. from California
There are two basic things going on here: one is are you drinking too much and one is your social anxiety. In regards to the first one, contrary to the popular wisdom in this area, I think this is a highly individualized question. Some people are highly tolerant of alcohol, and some people can easily become addicted and have it be a very destructive force in their life. There are a lot of internet resources to do screenings as to whether you might have a drinking problem. Those instruments tend to cast a wide net, catching many people who may drink a lot but may not have an addiction problem. So you need to honestly be able to ask yourself how much your drinking is feeling like you have to drink versus feeling like you’re enjoying drinking. You can do an experiment – take a period (2 weeks, a month) where you don’t drink any alcohol and just self-discuss. Do you crave alcohol? Do you have any withdrawal affects? Is your life any different without alcohol in it? It’s probably a good thing to do occasionally just in regards to your health, to help out your liver function. It’s important to be honest in your self assessment of the extent to which this is affecting your life and your health. If the idea of taking a two week period where you don’t drink is incomprehensible, you probably need it more.
What sounds like the real problem here is your social anxiety. Social anxiety is a common mild disorder and is often the underlying cause of people drinking or using other substances to a greater extent then they might have otherwise thought desirable. Social anxiety is just what it sounds like – you become anxious in social situations, especially talking to strangers, feeling like you may be negatively evaluated or judged or rejected. These feelings come from earlier life experiences, often from your parents, where you have gotten the message that you’re not good enough. The good news is that this is an easily treatable condition. What you need to do is challenge yourself to doing “experiments.” When you go to a party, make an agreement with yourself that you will walk up to a certain number of strangers – say 3 or 4 – and initiate a conversation. It doesn’t matter whether they’re the same sex or the opposite sex but they do need to be people that are previously unfamiliar to you. You could start out by saying “hi, my name is…” and go from there. How the stranger responds to you is simply unimportant. The important thing is that you summon up the courage to make the initial contact. This is what cognitive behavioral psychologists do frequently to treat a wide variety of disorders – you do the thing you’re most scared of doing. You will find that, in most cases, you’ll not only overcome the fear but you’ll begin to enjoy the experience that you previously loathed.