Social anxiety disorder (SAD) can seem illogical to those who haven’t experienced it. But, for those who face this mental health condition every day, it can be debilitating, exhausting and a bit overwhelming.
Let’s be clear: shyness isn’t quite the same as social anxiety. It’s okay to get anxious from time to time. You might get sweaty palms and feel a bit flustered before a big date. Or perhaps your stomach does somersaults when you’ve got to go to a networking event. This is completely natural.
On the flip side, people with social anxiety feel overwhelmingly worried about most social situations before, during and after them. It can really hold them back in life. Because the tricky thing about social anxiety is the way it can seep into every nook and cranny of your life, affecting everyday social activities, your confidence, relationships and work life.
It’s easy to get swept up in your thoughts when you have social anxiety. You might find it difficult to imagine a time when you don’t feel like this. But the truth is, with the right support, it’s possible to soothe your anxiety and feel calm and grounded in social situations. You don’t have to struggle in silence.
What is social anxiety disorder?
Social anxiety isn’t something to be embarrassed or ashamed about. Because it’s more common than you think.
Simply put, social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is more than just shyness or the occasional nerves. It’s a mental health condition where you have an intense fear of social situations, especially if they’re unfamiliar or you feel like you’re going to be watched or evaluated by others.
It usually starts during your teenage years and, for some people, it gets better as they get older. But for others, it doesn’t go away on its own without treatment. That’s why it’s important not to bottle it up.
Here are just a few tell-tale signs that you’re dealing with social anxiety disorder.
- Worry about everyday social activities, for instance, meeting strangers or speaking on the phone
- Avoiding social activities such as parties or group conversations
- Intense worry about a social event for days, weeks or months beforehand
- Fear of being watched or judged by others, especially people you don’t know
- Fear of being criticised and low self-esteem.
- Staying quiet or hiding in the background of social events
- Driving before a social event to soothe your nerves
- Physical symptoms such as blushing, upset stomach, trembling, sweating and pounding heartbeat
Am I socially anxious?
We’ve all been there. We’ve hidden in the kitchen because we don’t know many people at a party. Or our heart is pounding because we’re giving a presentation at work and we think people are judging us.
We all get a bit nervous about social situations from time to time. But unlike people with ‘normal’ or everyday nerves, someone with social anxiety will find these situations too hard to handle, and may try to avoid them altogether. Even though they know that their anxiety is irrational or unreasonable, they feel powerless against it.
If you don’t know whether you’re socially anxious, ask yourself, have you been feeling this way for a while now? Are your worries exaggerated or irrational? And finally, is it hindering you from living a life in line with your values? If the answer is yes, chances are you might be struggling with social anxiety.
Speak to your doctor or therapist if you’re still struggling to pin down whether you have social anxiety. They’ll be able to talk through your symptoms and provide you with practical, hands-on advice to help get you back on track.
What causes social anxiety?
There’s no sole reason for social anxiety. But there are a number of circumstances that may contribute to the disorder:
If one (or both) of your parents have social anxiety, you may be more likely to struggle with it too. Although it’s hard to say whether this is down to genetics or that you’re mimicking their behaviour.
Alternatively, it might be how your brain is wired. Some studies suggest that people with social anxiety often have heightened amygdala responses. The amygdala is a part of the brain that plays a pivotal role in anxiety responses, and it can cause extreme reactions to emotional events, memories and other stimuli.
Early childhood experiences
Negative childhood experiences also may contribute to social anxiety too. Let’s say you grew up in a household that was cold and lonely — or worse, explosive and abusive. As a way to cope, you may have adopted an unhelpful (or maladaptive) schema.
Schemas are a blueprint or way in which we see ourselves, others and the world around us. Our schemas can often be traced all the way back to our childhood experiences, and they can be positive or negative depending on whether our emotional needs were met, or not met.
In this instance, because your parents didn’t provide you with the nurturing, stable home you needed you might have felt that there was something wrong with you. Growing up, you might then believe that you’re defective or lesser somehow which can have a profound effect on your social interactions and make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin.
It’s perhaps not surprising that many victims of bullying admit that they struggle with social anxiety too, especially if they were shamed or publically humiliated. Deep down they might fear that the embarrassment they experienced might happen over and over again. Similarly, some research suggests that if you have a stammer or a physical disfigurement, you may be more prone to social anxiety too. Perhaps because you worry about how other people will perceive you and whether they’ll make judgey or snide remarks.
How to overcome social anxiety
The little voice in your head might tell you that there’s nothing that you can do about your social anxiety. But don’t believe it. Because the truth is, there are plenty of small steps you can take to soothe your social anxiety and create meaningful connections with others.
Understand your social anxiety
For you to overcome your social anxiety, the first step is to get to grips with it. What goes through your mind when you have an episode of social anxiety? Is it triggered by specific situations, for example, when you have to make small talk or perform in front of a crowd?
Keeping a journal can really help here. Jotting down your thoughts might help you realise why and when your social anxiety strikes.
Challenge negative thoughts
When we’re faced with social anxiety, the little voice in our heads can blow things out of proportion. You might think “I’ll just bore them because I don’t have anything to say” or “My voice will start shaking and I’ll embarrass myself” and these thoughts might not even be true. They might be exaggerated, pessimistic or based on emotions, rather than logic.
Psychologists call these negative thinking traps or cognitive distortions because they cloud your judgement, leave you stuck in a loop of negative thoughts and fuel your social anxiety.
Next time this happens, try to identify and challenge these negative thoughts. So, instead of thinking “I’m definitely going to mess up this presentation”, you might tell yourself “Do I know that for sure? I’ve prepared and my boss thinks I can do it so it will probably be fine”.
Make an effort to be sociable
Socialising can be difficult at the best of times, and your natural response might be to avoid, hide or run away from the nerve-wracking situation. But avoidance only fans the flames. Not only does it make the feared social situation even scarier, but it also might hold you back from living a life that’s authentic, fulfilling and in line with your values.
That’s why doing the opposite action can help. This is a skill we use in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and it’s literally about doing the exact opposite of what your urge tells you to do. So, in this instance, it’s about facing the social situation. Because, even though it takes guts, the more you do it, the less afraid you’ll become.
If it seems daunting to jump straight in, don’t worry, you can take it one small step at a time. The key is to start with a situation you can handle and gradually work your way up.
For instance, if socialising with strangers seems terrifying you might start by attending a party with a close friend. Then eventually you might aim to chat to one new person and another until having small talk with a stranger doesn’t seem so bad.
If you want to push yourself to be more sociable, it can help to take part in an activity. Maybe volunteer to do something you enjoy — whether that’s helping out at a dog shelter or delivering leaflets for a campaign you’re passionate about. Having an activity to focus on will help you engage with like-minded people and fine-tune your communication skills.
Ever wonder why, when we’re anxious, our breath often becomes rapid and shallow? It’s because our body has entered fight-or-flight mode. A rush of hormones gets released into the body, with the aim of helping us stay and fight the threat – or run away and flee. But when there’s no real threat or danger — for instance, when we’re simply having a conversation with a work colleague, it can be unhelpful, making us feel nervous and on edge.
That’s why breathing exercises can be a really useful tool to have in your toolkit. If you don’t know where to start, simply try to make your exhale longer than your inhale. And keep going until you find a rhythm that feels right for you.
Focus on others, not you
Ever feel like there’s a spotlight shining down on you, highlighting all your flaws and mistakes for the world to see? It’s a common shared experience but the truth we all overestimate how much other people notice us. The reality is, people probably aren’t paying such close attention to you as you think. Chances are they’re preoccupied with their own lives and their own insecurities. Social psychologists refer to this as the ‘spotlight effect’ and it can really drag us down.
It can make us feel extra self-conscious of how we appear and this can exacerbate our anxiety even further. That’s why switching from an internal to external focus can do us the world of good. Focus on other people. Don’t fixate on what they think of you. Instead, try to really engage with them and make a genuine connection with them.
Go to therapy
Talking therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can do a lot of good if you suffer from social anxiety. Therapy will provide you with the safe space you need to open up about your feelings and pinpoint where your social anxiety stems from. You’ll learn how to unpick negative thoughts and stop them in their tracks. Plus you’ll learn coping techniques and skills to help you soothe your anxiety and build your emotional intelligence. In time, you’ll have the tools you need to live your life to the fullest. Because your anxiety doesn’t have to hold you back any longer.