Exploring The Link Between Social Anxiety and Substance Abuse

By Jennifer Dahne

In my PhD research at the University of Maryland, my colleagues and I are focusing on a topic of interest to me during my study of psychology. We started by exploring the relationship between social anxiety and cigarette smoking.

Initially, I thought that those with social anxiety would be risk averse and avoid behavior like smoking. But I have learned that’s not always the case. Social anxiety can actually be a risk factor in substance abuse, such as smoking.

We found that individuals who suffer from social anxiety say that smoking helped to alleviate negative feelings. For example, at a college party, smoking might make them feel better in a challenging situation.

New research shows that signs of social anxiety in patients around 11 years old predicts alcohol use 5 years later and also over time. So how can it be prevented? Early intervention can be important. If kids are having trouble in school and social anxiety could be a case, it can be really beneficial for parents to seek treatment for them, even that young. Treatment supported by research has been proven to be most effective.

From research and observation, I have heard that people with social anxiety can end up down the wrong path is when they seek psychological services but they aren’t getting the right treatment for them. It’s important to be an active participant. So, if you don’t feel like your treatment is working over time, speak up. It’s crucial to have a voice.

It is my hope that the results of my research on substance abuse will help those with social anxiety. Right now, we’re working on a mobile app – Behavioral “App”tivation – that we think will be a cost-effective way of treating anxiety with or without substance abuse. It will help patients manage their anxiety in daily situations and also work with their therapists. I hope to tell you more about it when it’s developed and available.

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