How to Manage Social Anxiety
Social situations aren’t always comfortable. Even for the most confident people, there would be at least one social situation in their lives where they have felt nervous…and that’s okay!
It’s normal for some social events like public speaking, going on a date or joining a new exercise class to evoke a little anxiety. However, if this type of anxiety begins to have a negative effect on your daily life and relationships it can be suggestive of a social anxiety disorder. (ps. check out some of our thoughts on anxiety HERE)
What is social anxiety disorder?
Social anxiety disorder is characterized by an extreme fear of, and anxiety within social situations or situations where you are required to perform. What distinguishes social anxiety disorder from normal nerves is that the level of anxiety (and associated symptoms) experienced with social anxiety disorder is much higher than would normally be expected within that particular situation and that fear doesn’t go away. For someone experiencing this disorder, simple social situations like grabbing a coffee with a friend can become so frightening and cause such severe anxiety symptoms that they become extremely unpleasant. So unpleasant, that if given the opportunity to avoid the situation, someone suffering from social anxiety disorder will almost always choose to do so.
Social anxiety disorder involves experiencing both physical and psychological symptoms leading up to and during social events. The physical symptoms include excessive sweating, stomach upset (including nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea), trembling, light headedness, blushing and even stuttering. Psychological symptoms consist of a fear that someone will notice that you’re uncomfortable (that is that they will notice you experiencing the above symptoms), low self-esteem, excessive concern around your appearance and excessive worry surrounding social events.
What is the cause?
There is no one particular thing that’s been found to cause social anxiety disorder. However, there are some things believed to contribute to someone developing the disorder. Family history for instance. So if a direct family member suffers from social anxiety disorder, your chances of developing the disorder are higher.
Particular personalities can also be at higher risk than others. If you’re naturally shy, you may be more likely to experience social anxiety than someone who is outgoing and confident. Also, as with many other anxiety disorders, social anxiety disorder can be brought on by a negative event (or series of negative events). We all learn from our experiences, and sadly if those experiences are not very positive, it can have very damaging effects.
Managing social anxiety
If you’ve read the above and feel like you might be having some trouble with social anxiety, you’ll be happy to hear that there are ways to treat it.
Like anything else, managing social anxiety begins with understanding how anxiety works. So let’s dive into that first…
An often-forgotten truth about anxiety is that it is not actually a bad thing. Anxiety (and all the lovely symptoms that come along with it) is our body’s natural response to danger. Every symptom we experience when anxious, from the increased heart rate and sweating, to the racing thoughts and stomach upset, has a function in preparing our body to either fight or flee from danger. A problem only occurs when our mind triggers this same response when there isn’t actually any life-threatening danger (your brain only thinks there is).
For example, let’s say you had a really hard time at school and tended to be picked on by the other children. From this experience, your brain might develop the belief that being in a social situation is dangerous. Even though this behaviour happened at school, quickly your brain may begin to label all social situations with a big red “danger” sign. Then, regardless of whether it is a bad experience or not, the next time you’re in a social situation, this label (and fear) is enough to trigger anxiety symptoms. Those anxiety symptoms will then make it an unpleasant experience and therefore confirm your belief that being social is dangerous. Thus, the vicious cycle of social anxiety begins.
So how do you break the cycle?
Breaking the vicious cycle of social anxiety disorder consists of three goals.
1) First, you’ll need to find some ways to reduce the physical anxiety symptoms you experience. This might involve learning some relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation or muscle relaxing exercises.
2) Once you’re feeling a little more comfortable, then you go after the thoughts. Often with social anxiety disorder, somewhere along the way your brain has decided to misinterpret something as dangerous when it’s really not. This leads to lots of unhelpful thoughts about social situations and how other’s view you, that aren’t necessarily true (like thinking your friends don’t actually like you, everyone will just be bored by you or thinking you’re just going to make a fool of yourself so it’s not worth going). Tackling social anxiety disorder means confronting these thoughts for what they are (unhelpful and inaccurate) and helping your brain to think about social situations in a more helpful and realistic way.
3) Finally, you need to give your brain the opportunity to learn that social situations don’t need to be labelled as dangerous. This can be a daunting step as it involves actually participating in these feared situations and rather than avoiding them. By providing your brain with positive examples of social experiences, it begins to break that connection between social experiences and danger. This means that you will no longer associate social events with negative experiences, therefore reducing your unhelpful thoughts and physical symptoms all in one step. However, as this step involves enduring some uncomfortableness and actually approaching your fears, it is important that you complete steps one and two first.
If you feel you may be struggling with social anxiety disorder, please seek some counselling through a therapist. A qualified therapist is trained in being able to recognize the unhelpful thinking patterns behind social anxiety and can support you in working towards a more helpful thinking style. They will also be able to guide you towards developing the coping and relaxation skills needed to reduce your symptoms. Once you’re armed with these skills, your therapist will then be able to work out a step by step plan with you to ease you back into social situations gradually. Tackling social anxiety this way means you have all the bases covered and you have the support and expertise of your therapist to help you navigate your way through those trickier or more daunting steps. If you feel like you’d like some support around social anxiety, book a session with one of our therapists today.