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The Link Between Social Anxiety and Initial Drug Use

The Link Between Social Anxiety and Initial Drug Use

(This content is being used for illustrative purposes only; any person depicted in the content is a model)

From an early age, I’ve witnessed my peers fall into the pressure of doing drugs and alcohol. Looking back, I realized that for some, this was a way to break out of their shell and prove to others they were not introverted. Many people turn to substances to “loosen up.” For years, therapists and researchers have linked anxiety with drug use. Now, this new study delves further into the phenomenon. The theory that initial drug use may have to do with social anxiety could lead into better treatment methods.

Fitting In:  A Basic Need
One of the basic needs among humans is the desire to fit in.  Aside from survival necessities like food, water and shelter, we have emotional needs that need to be fulfilled in order to thrive. People need love, social belonging and acceptance by others. Researchers from Case Western University believe that lacking this basic desire can cause anxiety and lead into drug use.

In the study, 200 adolescents who had entered addiction treatment centers in the Northeast were observed. All the participants seemed to have issues with fitting in and responded well to exercises that helped lower social anxiety.

Close to half the teenagers experienced some form of social anxiety. Approximately 15 percent experienced social anxiety disorder. The teenagers with social anxiety disorder had the disorder two years prior to when they began to abuse drugs or alcohol.

The study elaborated stating that participants used drugs and alcohol as an outlet because they are trying to find a release from always feeling anxious about not fitting in. They turn to substance abuse as a way to alleviate their anxiety and find that it takes their mind off those worries.

The problem, of course is after the teenagers sober up, their anxiety returned causing them too return to using drugs and alcohol until it develops into an addiction. Heroin, for example, is becoming highly prevalent among youths and social anxiety could be one of the causes for this abuse. Luckily, treating the 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.

Analyzing Further

The next part of the research examined adolescents who attended Alcoholics Anonymous. They determine that those who participated in the meeting and helped set up made a smoother transition into society after being in treatment. The authors of the study found that participants were 50 percent less likely to relapse or end up in prison six months after being released from treatment.

Researchers concluded that participation in service activities can be very beneficial for youths with social anxiety. Acts of participation allow people to be in more friendly, outgoing and welcoming environments where people can engage in conversation easily. Participation activities reduce the fear of fitting in. Adolescents feel like they are in an environment where they are not being judged or looked at in a negative light.  The friendliness restores confidence and sense of belonging.

“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.”

So what does this all mean? Well, the study revealed that participants who did not choose to volunteer at meetings were at a higher risk for relapse. So it can be incredibly helpful for those with substance abuse disorders to not only attend meetings but get involved in it. The risk of relapse is higher within the first six months after leaving treatment. The researchers conclude that adolescents should be evaluated to determine if they are socially anxious. If we are able to get those who are prone to addiction to engage in activities that aid these symptoms, it will prevent the chances of them falling into drug addiction.

If you suffer from substance abuse due to social anxiety, seek treatment. You should be able to find a treatment center that addresses both your addiction and your anxiety. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-777-9588.

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