Social anxiety has been recognized as the third-biggest mental health problem and continues to impact millions of people worldwide.
Do you or a friend often feel intensely nervous at the thought of certain social situations?
Perhaps the idea of going out on a date fills you with physical dread? Maybe an upcoming party has made you worry and obsess about how bad it is going to be for weeks before it actually happens?
If so, you may have social anxiety disorder.
This isn’t just a feeling of nervousness. This is an intense, life-disrupting fear of particular social situations.
But if you do have it, don’t worry.
You are not alone…
What is social anxiety disorder?
Social anxiety disorder was formerly known as social phobia. It is the sometimes intense fear of social situations.
Specifically, it is the fear of being judged negatively in social situations by other people. It can also include a fear of showing it through physical symptoms like sweating or shaking. It can lead to feelings of extreme self-consciousness, embarrassment, inadequacy and depression.
Currently, social anxiety is one of the most common mental health care problems in the world. In the US, it is estimated that:
- Around 7% of the population suffers from it
- Only alcoholism and depression are more common than social anxiety
- You have around a 1 in 7 chance to develop it within your lifetime
What are the symptoms of social anxiety?
There is a big difference between being a little nervous about a big presentation or going to a party, and suffering from a social anxiety disorder.
The first may mean you are a little shy. The second has physical symptoms which may include:
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Rapid heartbeat or tightness in your chest
- Shaking, shivering or very tense muscles
- Feelings of dizziness
- Nausea or diarrhoea
- Difficulty speaking or a shake in your voice
- An out-of-body sensation
Needless to say, the desire to avoid experiencing the symptoms of social anxiety can lead to strategies of avoidance of social situations. If you have it, you might start worrying intensely about a social situation – whether it is a party, business meeting or dinner with a single person – for weeks before an event is due to take place.
This means that the disorder can seriously affect daily lives, causing a great deal of distress.
What causes social anxiety?
There is no one set cause of social anxiety disorder:
1. There may be a genetic basis – people with family members who have social phobia are more likely to have it as well. There is a specific part of your brain which controls the fear response – the amygdala – which may be overactive.
2. There may also be environmental factors – children who suffer a great deal of bullying or abuse may suffer from it, as might children who have very overbearing parents or who are very shy at a young age.
3. There may be an apparently unrelated health condition – if you have an unrelated condition which makes you stand out in sound or appearance, for example.
The first appearance of social anxiety disorder usually happens around age 13.
How to overcome social anxiety
Just as there is no one set cause or trigger for this kind of phobia, there is no one way how to “cure” social anxiety.
In recent years though, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) practitioners have developed a number of different ways to cope with social anxiety.
There are also a number of other options. One of these may work for you:
1) Remember that avoidance is not your friend
The natural reaction of many people with a phobia of certain social situations is to avoid them altogether.
While natural, this is one of the worst things you can do. The loop this leads to is:
- Get incredibly anxious about an event
- Decide to avoid the event
- Immediately feel better
This creates a situation where you are rewarding yourself for the avoidance of a situation where nothing may have gone “wrong” even if you had attended.
One of the main parts of the CBT approaches mentioned above is usually to train yourself to experience social situations and empower yourself by learning that nothing bad is actually likely to happen.
2) Fight against negative thoughts
Imagining all of the terrible things which will happen in a certain social situation can create a negative loop where you reinforce the problem.
When this happens, CBT teaches a process of analysis of those thoughts and challenging them:
Will anyone care that you don’t have anything to say? Or that it is a hot day and you are sweating?
No, they won’t. But only by examining your own thought process and the reasons for it can you hope to start to overcome social anxiety.
3) Guard against “safety” behaviours
A large number of social anxiety sufferers have “safety behaviours” which they use to try to limit the impact of their phobia. These might include:
- Drinking alcohol or taking drugs
- Wiping sweaty hands on clothing
- Holding items very tightly or keeping hands in pockets so they can’t be seen to shake
- Rehearsing good things to say in social situations (and then hurrying to get them out and stumbling over words)
Unfortunately, these behaviours cause many more problems than they solve. The realization that they can manage social situations without these measures is often a solid step on the road for many people figuring out how to get over – or at least how to cope with – social anxiety.
One way you can do this is to…
4) Focus on the moment – not on yourself
One of the biggest threads running through the fears of people with social phobia is the belief that their condition is very obvious to the people all around them – and that they are being judged for it.
In reality, of course, even if you are speaking with someone who appears nervous, most people will ignore it or understand the feeling themselves. The best thing to do is to concentrate on the conversation.
In general, people like people who are paying attention to them and who are being honest about who they are.
Two points to remember.
5) Try natural remedies and meditation
Some people who have really struggled with how to get over social anxiety have tried various alternative medicines and practices over the years.
One of those which has recently started gaining greater attention around the world is ayahuasca. Its ancient roots are in South America as a spiritual and emotional healing brew.
Ayahuasca helps to go to the root of the issue and resolve it at the very core so that you don’t have to fight with symptoms. Many people have found the effects of ayahuasca to be life-transforming as can be seen in this video:
These days, ayahuasca retreats at places like the Spirit Vine Center in Brazil are possible options for some sufferers.
How to help someone with social anxiety
If you have a friend who has a social anxiety disorder, it may be quite noticeable if you know what to look for.
People who have social phobia may take strenuous measures to avoid certain social situations. Others may always stay in the background, need a friend to go along with them to any event or pre-drink before social situations to take the edge off.
There are several things you can do to help them:
1. Don’t enable their behaviours. Talking on someone’s behalf or always leaving the party at the earliest possible time might not be helpful. However, if you can slowly encourage them to say something or stay for just five minutes longer, it can be a good step. Slow progress is good progress.
2. Don’t blame them. The possible environmental and biological causes of social anxiety disorder listed above should show you that you can’t blame someone for having the condition!
3. Praise their success. Even small elements of progress can be incredibly difficult and should be rewarded with positive feedback.
4. Be patient. Don’t expect them to change overnight.
5. Ask them what will help. They may not know, but it’s still better to ask than assume.
But, in general, gently encouraging them to seek treatment or to talk to a professional about their problem (even if this in itself might be a stressful activity!) is usually the best thing you can do if you or a friend are wondering what to do about social anxiety.