Not Drinking? These 5 Tips Can Help You Keep The Social Anxiety Away
The prospect of hanging out with others who still indulge can kickstart anxiety. By drawing on it, you can create a plan to push through it and stay social.
When you cut back on drinking or stop altogether, the new world comes with its share of challenges, one of which is facing social situations without the aid of alcohol. Chances are that alcohol consumption was a steady feature of your social life. That probably means that when you quit drinking, you also quit socializing, at least for a little bit. But, as we humans are social animals and parenting often forces you into social situations, you’re going to have to resume your social life eventually, and you’re going to have to do it sober. And, well, this can feel a little bit weird.
Alcohol’s notorious ability to lower inhibition makes people more eager to express their thoughts and less concerned about how people perceive their words and actions. Unfortunately, being newly sober among drinkers can feel profoundly inhibiting. You not only miss the social lubrication of alcohol but are likely at least a little self conscious about how people may react to you as a non-drinker. Hell, even thinking about being sober at a party can be anxiety inducing for the newly dry. The odds are pretty high that social anxiety may have been a factor to begin with, since people with general anxiety disorder are often particularly drawn to alcohol.
“People who have a very high level of conscientiousness and a high level of self-inhibition can turn it off with the push of the beer lever,” says psychologist and author Chloe Carmichael.
Indeed. In her book Nervous Energy, Carmichael reframes anxiety as a positive influence on behavior with a healthy purpose: stimulating preparation behaviors. By drawing on your anxiety about socializing without alcohol, Carmichael says, you can create a plan that helps you cope. Here are five ways to help that plan take shape.
1. Reflect On What’s Behind Your Anxiety
The first step is to explore the anxiety you’re feeling. Think about where it’s coming from. Are you self-conscious of how people will view you when you're not drinking or worried about being able to relax and engage in a social event without alcohol? Those are two different reasons and require different approaches. To deal with anxiety rationally, Carmichael says we have to know what we need to prepare for. For example, there’s a difference between asking yourself Am I self-conscious of what other people will say or think about me because I’m not drinking? and Am I wondering how I’m going to relax and engage at an event without alcohol’s lubrication? “Those are different reasons,” she says. Honestly exploring them can help lead to the truth.
2. Prep Small Talking Points
While this may feel a little be weird, it helps to prep some topics of conversation to help you curb the social anxiety you may be feeling.
“You can think in advance of five or six small talk topics that would be good for you to chat and share about,” says Carmichael. “It could be anything from upcoming vacation plans or the high and low points of your week.”
If you don’t want to talk about personal matters, prep conversation starters concerning current events. Don’t worry about whether it’s smart. Pick something you’re comfortable discussing and don’t worry whether it’s trivial or trashy. In fact, when you’re talking to people who aren’t abstaining from alcohol, trashier might be better.
“Be honest with yourself,” Carmichael says. “It doesn't have to be highbrow. Part of the fun of alcohol is that it lets people just let their hair down and not feel like everything that comes out of their mouth has to be polished and perfect.”
3. Carry Around A Seltzer And Blend In
If you’re anxious about what people will say or think about you because you’re not drinking or don’t want to talk about why you’re not drinking, you don't owe people an explanation. There’s no reason to broadcast your sobriety to the world.
“You don't have to feel like there's a spotlight on it,” Carmichael says, adding that you don’t need to feel self conscious about avoiding alcohol either. “People might not really be focusing on it as much as you think.”
Also, remember that people generally don’t pay close attention to details when they’re drinking. “If you have a drink that looks like alcoholic drinks, like a club soda with a splash of cranberry, nobody will know if there's vodka in there or not,” Carmichael says. Moreover, simply carrying a drink in a roomful of drinkers can trigger a helpful placebo effect. Studies have shown that virgin drinks can produce the same socializing effects as alcoholic ones.
4. Prepare An Explanation For Why You’re Sober (But Only If You Want To)
If you decide to share why you're not drinking, it’s helpful to have your reasons ready to go. You don’t have to go into great depth about sobriety but just knowing you have something to say can make you comfortable. Carmichael notes that citing “health reasons” covers a lot of ground, ranging from concerns about weight to addiction or you’re fed up with being tired and hungover every Sunday. It also lets you control the narrative and fend off uncomfortable questions due to the social boundaries surrounding health topics. “When somebody says that they're doing something for health reasons, that is a gentle social signal that lets people know they shouldn’t pry,” Carmichael says.
5. Remember: It’s Fine Tell People You’re Not A Buzzkill
You might be worried that being sober among people who are drinking can make people uncomfortable. Carmichael says it’s a valid concern. People let their guard down when they drink. Knowing someone’s sober often puts it back up.
“Depending on your social dynamic, it can be helpful to say something positive about other people being able to enjoy what they enjoy,” she says. Carmichael suggests having a statement ready along the lines of “I realized it's better for me if I don't drink but I totally support people who do,” adding that “expressing support for people who want to enjoy alcohol can help soothe your own fears about making other people uncomfortable.”
Socializing without alcohol gets easier over time. But in the short term, putting effort into understanding the challenge and taking conscious steps to deal with that challenge can make it much easier. Many of the techniques listed above have hidden secondary benefits, too, and create a kind of snowball effect. For example, mentally rehearsing conversation topics does more than just get you ready to talk.
“In moments of stress, it gives your brain something else to think about,” Carmichael says. “And what you’re thinking about is something constructive related to your goals.”