I walked into a room at a recent intimate event, where I expected a few familiar faces, and realised I knew no one.
I stood, clutching my champagne glass with sweaty palms, and tried to look enthralled by the floral arrangement.
Eventually someone came and saved my sorry self but I held onto my glass like a soothing companion, which occupied my fidgety hands and provided alcohol to take the edge off my discomfort.
For people who choose to wake up with a clear head and a fully functioning liver, either for Dry July or indefinitely, as many more people I know are doing, sober socialising can be a challenge.
Social anxiety – that is feeling shy or nervous or jittery in unfamiliar social situations – is normal and, add to that, about 11 per cent of the population suffer social phobia, which causes them intense anxiety in those same situations.
Common as social anxiety is – in its varying degrees – it is also very common for people to use alcohol to dull or cope with the symptoms.
Whether they use it before they go out or while they’re out, many people think it will make them more sociable and less shy. For about 28 per cent of those with social anxiety, they’ll end up drinking to excess in an attempt to manage their feelings.
“I came across a girl the other day who can’t talk to a guy without a drink in her hand and three drinks down,” reveals relationship expert, Dr Nikki Goldstein.
Goldstein points to the number of inebriated people on a Saturday night. “It’s a lot to do with lowering inhibitions,” she says.
“Research has found that two drinks help calm nerves and help people relax,” she adds. “Anything more than two starts to have a negative effect. And who stops at two drinks? The people who use alcohol to lower their inhibitions rarely stop at two drinks… you automatically keep drinking.”
Regardless of whether it’s a little or a lot, the problem is if alcohol becomes a crutch in social settings.
“You need to know how to strike up a conversation without a drink,” Goldstein says.
As a culture, we’re becoming more aware of the health effects of boozing, and, according to research by Dry July, as many as 63 per cent of us are trying to exercise, eat well and drink less.
Goldstein says this bodes well for practicing social skills in a sober setting.
“I think we’re getting healthier – the whole healthy lifestyle is on trend,” she says.
As for going out and being the sober one where others are drinking, Goldstein says there are ways to minimise anxiety without drinking.
GRAB A GLASS
“Get a wine or champagne glass and fill it with soda water – you’re still holding something and you don’t feel out of place,” Goldstein suggests. “Also people are less likely to pressure you into a drink.”
Having a drink or something else in hand to hold can also help with nervous energy, she says.
“People get weird about body posture and how they stand … it can be better for people to fiddle with something [as an outlet for that energy] so they can concentrate.”
“If you need to drink in a social setting, wean yourself off,” Goldstein says.
“Speak to the person in the elevator or coffee queue. Put your phone down when you’re out. Practice starting those conversations – that will give you the confidence to talk with strangers. Start with a statement and then ask a question.”
If you don’t feel comfortable asking a question, she suggests giving a compliment, which can help to relax the other person as well and make you both feel better.
“Ask yourself why you are anxious – do you have a fear of rejection or that someone is going to laugh at you?” Goldstein asks.
“Do you feel good about yourself? It’s not necessarily about changing anything, but maybe something as simple as making sure you’re not wearing something that will make you feel more self-conscious.
“Maybe you need another person around. Also, what makes you feel good and what are you good at? You might not ever feel 100 per cent confident, but there are little ways to support yourself.”
If it’s still causing you grief, it’s worth asking for help as social anxiety is treatable.
“The socially anxious individual may be better off seeking some counselling aimed at replacing drinking with some other strategy to help him or her cope with that anxiety,” says psychologist, Joseph Nowinski. “There are many proven therapeutic strategies for doing this, such as role-playing [with a therapist], cognitive role-playing [by yourself], and cognitive-behavioural therapy, which involves changing thoughts, perceptions, and expectations in order to change behaviour. ”