Students, Social Anxiety & Alcohol Use

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • Social anxiety disorder is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder. Its debilitating effects extend way beyond a personal feeling of discomfort in social situations, as those who suffer will attest. Social anxiety disorder, sometimes referred to as social phobia, affects jobs, academic success, social situations and intimate relationships.


    In studies of college students around 40 per cent report heavy bouts of alcohol consumption. It is a common enough assumption that patterns of alcohol consumption in college students relates more to ‘student life' than any significant or predicted risk factor. Evidence seems to suggest that the majority of students simply grow out of regular heavy drinking sessions once they leave their student days behind them.

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    Outside of college the incidence of alcohol dependency in people with social anxiety disorder is roughly double that of the general population. Within student populations the relationship between social anxiety and alcohol consumption has been the focus of several research studies. Interestingly the relationship is not as clear cut as may first be imagined. Social anxiety alone, it seems, may act as much a protector as it does a risk factor for alcohol use.


    Why do we drink alcohol? Well, according to Cooper (1994) there are four central reasons. The first of these is social, the second is to improve mood, the third to reduce negative feelings and the fourth is to conform to the situation we are in. College and University environments present young people with a unique set of circumstances. Many are coping with being away from home for the first time, they are challenged by new intellectual demands, they may need to work, attain good grades, make new friends, and so on. It is certainly true that some research has pointed to the fact that socially anxious people are more likely to use alcohol to cope with social situations, but very little is actually known about the role of drinking motives in social anxiety amongst college students.


    Recently published research by Ham et al (2007) was aimed at revealing the relationship between social anxiety and drinking, specifically within a college student population. They found that social anxiety was actually unrelated to alcohol-related problems. Moreover, social anxiety was largely unrelated to student's motives for drinking alcohol. Only individuals with high or moderate social anxiety appeared more likely to use alcohol as a motive for coping.


    The research group have put forward some thoughts on why these results appear as they do. They argue that socially anxious students may steer clear from alcohol in case they show themselves up in front of others as a result of drinking too much. It is also the case that because of social anxiety, these same students are more likely to avoid situations, like parties, where drinking is a feature. However, students with high levels of social anxiety did still appear to be at greater risk of problem alcohol use.


  • One thing this study illustrates is that the relationship between social anxiety and motives to drink alcohol is more complex than might first be imagined. The authors point out that coping motives could be a significant factor when trying to explain alcohol use and the often mixed feelings that socially anxious people have with regard to alcohol consumption. As more is understood about this relationship, more appropriate prevention and treatment programs may develop.

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    Ham. L.S., Bonin, M., Hope, D.A. (2007) The role of drinking motives in social anxiety and alcohol use. Journal of Anxiety Disorders 21. 991-1003

Published On: October 19, 2007