Social anxiety is a disorder marked by an intense fear of social situations and the perception that others are constantly scrutinizing the individual. The disorder causes significant distress and impairment in those suffering from it. Social anxiety leads to avoidance of people, places, and activities. You may know someone dealing with symptoms of social anxiety. It is important to understand the impact that social anxiety can have on someone’s life. The following paragraphs will provide more detailed information about this unpleasant condition.
Characteristics of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is not the same as shyness. Although there are similarities, social anxiety is far more severe. People with social anxiety have a difficult time communicating with others or participating in social activities. Often, they place unnecessary weight on insignificant events. They have a persistent fear of judgment by others, whether or not this judgment ever occurs. Individuals with social anxiety deal with extreme apprehensiveness about many social tasks, which can lead to complete avoidance whenever possible.
Complications of Social Anxiety
Often, individuals with social anxiety can become proficient at hiding their symptoms. Through avoidance of tasks or activities, they may feel that their symptoms are reduced or managed. However, this avoidance merely fuels the problem because it is not possible to live completely outside of the social world forever. Inevitably, a circumstance will occur that will force someone with social anxiety to complete a task he/she would normally avoid. Without having developed constructive coping skills for the anxiety, this event may fill the individual with incapacitating fear.
Support for Social Anxiety
Individuals with social anxiety are often dismissed as simply having normal symptoms of shyness that they must “get over.” Although these intentions may be supportive, this often leads to feelings of invalidation and insecurity. Additionally, individuals with social anxiety who are told that it is a normal experience may choose not to seek help for their symptoms. Therefore, it is important to validate that a loved one is dealing with something particularly troubling and encourage him/her to seek counseling.
Cognitive and behavioral strategies are particularly effective for treating the symptoms of social anxiety. One example of a cognitive strategy is reframing, and an example of a behavioral strategy is exposure.
Reframing negative thoughts can be a powerful way to manage the negative experiences associated with the anxiety. For instance, someone who fears judgment from others may work to replace thoughts such as, “Everyone will laugh at me if I say the wrong thing,” with “I am probably far more focused on my mistake than others will be.” An effective way to practice this strategy would be to use a double column chart to record thoughts. One column should include a list of anxiety-inducing thoughts, and the other column should include more realistic versions of these thoughts.
Another important strategy for treating social anxiety is exposure. Essentially, exposure requires that an individual with social anxiety engages in behaviors that he/she would typically avoid out of fear. For instance, someone with social anxiety might choose to make a brief phone or spend short periods of time at a crowded restaurant with a friend. Understandably, it is uncomfortable to participate in such activities. At first, the anxiety caused by these experiences will likely cause distress. Therefore, it is important to learn and practice skills to use to defend against the anxiety. One example would be a grounding technique known as “5-4-3-2-1.” This technique involves mentally evaluating five sights, four physical sensations, three sounds, two smells, and one taste. Forcing the mind to focus on the senses in this way can significantly reduce the feeling of anxiety.
Over time, practicing these behaviors may reduce uneasiness and improve quality of life.
Social anxiety is complicated because it can often be confused with a shy personality. It is important to understand the distinction because of the significant impact social anxiety can have. Individuals with social anxiety should be aware that there is help for this disorder, and they do not need to continue tolerating the negative symptoms associated with it. They should look into strategies that can help them with their particular manifestations of social anxiety or consider counseling to help them to conquer it.
Suggestions for further information:
- Cooper, H. (2016). Thriving with social anxiety: daily strategies for overcoming anxiety and building self-confidence. Berkeley: Althea Press.
- Richards, T. A. (2014). Overcoming social anxiety step by step. San Diego: Social Anxiety Institute.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness/index.shtml