ANXIETY
April 20, 2015

Helping Others to Help Yourself

When teens with social anxiety help others, they come to feel more comfortable in their own skin.

People with social anxiety disorder have unreasonable fears about social situations and interactions because they are concerned about others' judgments of them. When they do head to a party or event, they are likely to look for something to take the edge off their nervousness in social settings.

This is one reason adults, and teens with social anxiety, gravitate toward drugs and alcohol: The substances can help them feel more at ease, and less down on themselves socially and psychologically.

Learning to tolerate feeling different and letting other people have their opinions about you takes practice, it gets easier.

So it is not unusual for a socially anxious teen or adult to develop drug or alcohol dependence. A new study has found that when it comes to teens who have severe social anxiety and who have substance abuse issues, asking them to help others can go a long way to helping them recover from both anxiety and substance abuse.

“Socially anxious adolescents quickly figure out that alcohol and drugs can provide ease and comfort in social situations that are anxiety provoking,” author Maria E. Pagano said in a news release.

“Reaching for a substance to change how you feel can quickly become a knee-jerk reaction, develop into an addiction, and rob youth of learning how to tolerate interpersonal differences and uncomfortable feelings, develop emotional maturity, and cultivate self acceptance.”

Case Western Reserve University researchers followed almost 200 teens, aged 14 to 18, who were taking part in a residential treatment program for alcohol or marijuana dependency. Some of the teens had social anxiety disorder, and some had fears of being humiliated in public.

Some of the teens with social anxiety became involved in socially helpful activities — like putting away chairs or making coffee. At the end of 12 months, more of them were still substance-free.

The service tasks don’t need to be intense. “It is less about needing peer assistance or expecting praise or recognition from giving service,” Pagano said. “It is more about adopting the attitude of ‘how can I be helpful?’ ”

Social anxiety can make people less likely to do the very thing that could help them feel better: Reach out to other people and talk about their experiences, history, fears, and anxieties. It can also prevent them from seeking treatment for addiction problems. This can create a vicious cycle in which anxiety fuels greater isolation.

The cycle needs to be broken for recovery to occur. “There is a lot of healing that comes from sharing your insides with others,” said Pagano. So it makes sense that being in a residential program, and helping out even in little ways, would be very therapeutic for a young person who is socially quite anxious.

“There are many real-world applications for the findings from this study,” Pagano added. “Adolescents could benefit from knowing that most people feel like they do not fit in and that it is a lifelong journey to become comfortable in your own skin.

Parents, teachers, and other positive adults in the lives of adolescents can provide education about this and the role and long-term costs that alcohol and other drugs might have in the pursuit of short-term relief. While learning to tolerate feeling different and letting other people have their opinions about you takes practice, it gets easier.”

It’s important to introduce teens to the idea of helping out in low-key ways, since too much might make them feel pushed into the spotlight, and could backfire.

If your teen is suffering from social problems, and using substances to self-medicate, you might talk to him or her about trying group treatment. It may be difficult at first but, over time, building those bonds with peers going through the same thing may be exactly what’s needed to recover.

The study is published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

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