Learning to Cope with Social Anxiety in Recovery

Social anxiety is more than shyness — it’s a mental health condition that can seriously affect a person’s ability to interact with others. This can make addiction recovery challenging, especially when so many programs emphasize social interaction and fellowship as a means to long-term sobriety. 

For me, this was a big problem. As someone who had used alcohol and benzodiazepines to self-medicate social anxiety and panic disorder for years, I was discouraged when the counselor at my first rehab told me that attending support group meetings was my best bet for maintaining long-term sobriety. At the time (this was back in 2005 when Zoom meetings didn’t exist), putting myself in a room full of strangers felt more like a trigger than a solution. My heart would race and my panic would kick up and I’d be lucky if I could focus for even just five minutes on what people were saying. I rarely spoke a word and if I did I would tremble and sweat. 

Eventually, I developed the skills I needed to manage those intense feelings so I could reap the benefits of group support. But it took many years and multiple relapses. And I felt a lot of shame and hopelessness along the way. Looking back, I can identify three things that made a world of difference in making it possible, and I’m sharing them here for anyone who can relate. Because there is hope — I was convinced that social anxiety made addiction recovery impossible for me; thank goodness I was wrong. 

1. Individual Therapy

If the idea of attending group therapy or 12-step meetings fills you with fear, try easing into addiction recovery with one-on-one therapy. For some people, being in a private setting with just one other person makes it easier to speak openly and honestly, especially in early sobriety. A trained counselor can also use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to teach you coping skills for social anxiety and panic, which may help you feel more at ease in group settings. In some cases, a doctor may also prescribe non-addictive antianxiety medication to help manage your symptoms.

2. Online Support Meetings

Online support group meetings have been a game-changer for me. They allow me to experience the benefits of fellowship from the comfort and safety of my own home, which has helped me become more open and engaged in the groups I attend, including in-person meetings. It’s also just so easy — you can find online AA meetings at pretty much any time, day or night, in any part of the world. In addition to AA, SMART Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery, and Recovery Dharma also offer online meetings. 

3. Regular Exercise

I know, I know, you’ve probably heard it before. I did too, and I always rolled my eyes. But once I implemented consistent exercise into my life, I was shocked to learn that it really helped, especially with the physical symptoms of anxiety. The key (for me at least) is consistency, not intensity. I don’t have to kill myself doing high-intensity interval training (HITT) every day. Sometimes, a brisk walk is enough. And there’s science to explain it: Cardiovascular activities such as jogging, biking, and running boost the production of calming, anti-anxiety neurochemicals in the brain, including serotonin and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Exercise has also been found to reduce overactivity in the amygdala, which is known to cause common anxiety and panic symptoms such as racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, and dizziness or lightheadedness. 

Does your anxiety make recovery harder for you? Have tips for managing? Share them with us in the comments! 


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