Getting nervous in certain social situations is common and natural. Events like going on a date or delivering a public presentation often elicit familiar butterflies in the stomach. However, with social anxiety, even ordinary interactions can trigger significant anxiety, self-consciousness, and embarrassment. This heightened response stems from the fear of being closely observed or negatively judged by others.
Social anxiety disorder can profoundly impact one's life, as this fear and anxiety can lead to avoidance behaviours that disrupt various aspects of daily living. The resulting high levels of stress can affect relationships, daily routines, work or school commitments, and other activities.
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is not just about shyness. It's an intense fear of being judged, scrutinized, or embarrassed in social situations. This anxiety can significantly impact various aspects of life, from personal relationships to professional opportunities. People with anxiety may also struggle in social settings, such as get-togethers like parties, weddings, and family festivities. The fear can be paralyzing, causing individuals with this anxiety to avoid events that others find enjoyable.
A specific condition, the performance type of social anxiety, is characterized by intense fear and anxiety, especially during public speaking or performing.
According to estimates, social anxiety affects 9.1% of teenagers, with 1.3% having severe impairment. It is also more prevalent among women (11.2%) than men (7%)
What Causes Social Anxiety?
As with many other mental health conditions, social anxiety disorder is likely the result of a complex interplay between biological and environmental factors. Potential contributing root causes of social anxiety include:
The amygdala, a region of the brain, may play a pivotal role in regulating the fear response. A person's response to fear may be exacerbated in those with an overactive amygdala, which can lead to increased anxiety in social situations.
It's possible that social anxiety disorder can be learned through experience. Some individuals may develop significant anxiety following distressing or embarrassing social situations. Additionally, there may be a connection between social anxiety disorder and parental behaviours, such as modelling anxious behaviour in social contexts or exhibiting over-controlling or overprotective tendencies toward their children.
Anxiety disorders tend to run in families, though it remains unclear to what extent genetics versus learned behaviours are responsible for this pattern.
Symptoms and Feelings of Social Anxiety
Compared to regular nervousness, social anxiety involves fear, anxiety, and isolation that interfere with regular daily activities. Recognizing the symptoms of social anxiety is crucial for seeking appropriate help. By understanding these symptoms, individuals can better navigate their emotional landscape and work towards constructive solutions.
Emotional and Behavioural Symptoms
Fearing circumstances where you may be judged
Concerned about potential embarrassment or humiliation
Heightened fear of interacting or communicating with strangers
Avoiding interactions and conversations
Expecting the worst possible outcomes
Rapid heart rate
Flushing or sweating
Nausea or stomach upset
Dizziness and fainting
Avoiding Common Experiences
Attending parties or social gatherings
Attending class or going to work
Dating or interacting with strangers
Eating in public
It's crucial to remember that social anxiety disorder symptoms vary over time and may get worse during times of significant life stress or transition. Although avoiding events that make you anxious could make you feel better temporarily, it unfortunately tends to maintain social anxiety problems in the long-term. Getting professional help can assist with long-term social anxiety relief.
How to Overcome Social Anxiety
1.Treat yourself with kindness
Generally, social anxiety involves feelings of rejection or disapproval. If you've just done something different, remember to always acknowledge progress and that embracing imperfections is part of the journey.
You might find that conversing with others gradually becomes less difficult if you move to allowing yourself to perform imperfectly or to make mistakes. Making space for your experience to be as it is helps prevent the anxiety-shame circles which perpetuate the vicious cycle of anxiety.
2. Know your triggers
Social anxiety affects people differently and doesn't always manifest itself in the same ways. Understanding the specific situations that trigger social anxiety is essential to learn how to deal with social anxiety in public. You can develop coping mechanisms by identifying triggers and gradually soothe yourself during anxiety-inducing scenarios. You can also practice approaching situations that are related to your social anxiety and over time learn to stay in these situations while reducing avoidance behaviours. Approaching these situations in the absence of avoidance helps you learn that although anxiety can be high, it does eventually settle. Even when anxiety sticks around, you can still learn that the experiences can be tolerable and do not need to prevent you from doing what’s important to you (although this is easy to say, it certainly will not feel like this in the moment at first!).
Overcoming social anxiety is a gradual process, and starting with small, manageable steps is key. It's okay to begin with little adjustments while managing social anxiety. You're not required to approach everyone you meet and offer to lead a meeting. Small victories contribute to a sense of achievement and foster confidence in social settings.
4.Reduce alcohol intake
While it may be tempting to use alcohol as an outlet for social anxiety, doing so might be detrimental. A little alcohol can help you feel more at ease for now, it can also heighten your anxiety in the long run.
You could reach a point where you feel unable to socialize without alcohol if you routinely use it to manage your social anxiety. Additionally, you could find that consuming more is necessary to achieve the same results. Instead, adopt a mindful drinking approach and pay attention to when, how much, and how you feel after drinking. Alcohol use in social anxiety is often an avoidance behaviour that ultimately serves to maintain anxiety in the long-term.
5.Address Anxiety-Maintaining Thoughts
Negative thought patterns and self-doubt frequently amplify social anxiety. Challenging these negative thoughts can reshape perceptions, build confidence, and cultivate a more positive mindset.
It’s not about positive thinking. It’s more about helping you recognize that thoughts that you are having while socially anxious are heavily influenced by your anxiety and may not match reality. For example, while you may have the thought that everyone is looking at you and watching you, reflecting on the fact that most people are actually preoccupied with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences and so are probably not actually intent on observing you can be helpful.
6.Practice mindfulness and relaxation
Intense physical symptoms of social anxiety can include sweating, an elevated heart rate, dizziness, and vomiting. These physical symptoms can be managed by incorporating relaxation techniques like deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. Mindfulness is a psychological approach that can also be significantly helpful in helping us change our relationship to anxiety provoking thoughts and feelings.
Contrary to popular belief, social anxiety is not the same as feeling nervous, embarrassed, or stressed around unfamiliar people. Social anxiety is a mental health condition that can sometimes be difficult to treat yourself. The lure of avoidance is strong and many people find that their lives can become increasingly smaller over time with social anxiety, as they continue to avoid more and more situations that trigger anxiety.
Even though there are many self-help strategies you may use to control your anxiety and pain, consulting a professional is often a helpful place to start. Having a support system can be invaluable, whether through treatment, support groups, or confiding in a reliable friend.
Remember, overcoming social anxiety is a step-by-step process—and a deeply personal one. Even though social anxiety is a problem that many people experience, you can address it with a little help from yourself and professional support.
You are not alone. Shlomo Radcliffe & Associates offers anxiety therapy in Toronto to help you move forward. Schedule an appointment now at (289) 801-4133.