What Is Social Anxiety, and How Can You Overcome It?
Many people feel very nervous in certain social situations. For example, you may feel stressed out during an interview for a new job or when you need to deliver a speech in front of a big audience. Some people are shy and tend to avoid social interactions.
However, there are also people for whom such experiences can be more than stressful and inconvenient.
For people with social anxiety, social situations can be too difficult to handle. Social anxiety is a mental health disorder associated with an intense fear of social situations, especially if these situations are unfamiliar or if a person receives a lot of attention from others. People with social anxiety are afraid of being embarrassed and judged by others.
Even though such a fear might be irrational, it’s nevertheless difficult to overcome. People who suffer from social anxiety may avoid social interactions at all costs.
As a result, this disorder can negatively affect one’s relationships and overall quality of life, which is a reason why people who suffer from it often need therapy.
What Social Anxiety Is, and What Causes It?
According to research, about 12% of the world population suffers from social anxiety disorder (SAD). However, many people experience the symptoms of SAD without being diagnosed with it.
It’s also important to keep in mind that not all people who feel self-conscious and shy have this disorder. For instance, there is a difference between social anxiety and introversion.
Social Anxiety vs. Introversion
Unlike SAD, introversion isn’t a mental health disorder but a personality trait. Introverted people tend to spend a lot of time alone, and they may also avoid social interactions. Introverts are good listeners, and they are often careful in making decisions.
At the first glance, introversion and SAD may look similar, and the main difference between these things is that introversion doesn’t necessarily impact one’s quality of life. If you’re an introverted person, you don’t need to change it.
You may simply put some effort into developing your social skills so that it will be easier for you to communicate with others, but introversion itself cannot cause the symptoms of SAD.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder
There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed out before delivering a speech or being interviewed for a new job. SAD, however, can make a person feel so bad that they will experience problems with their everyday activities.
For instance, if you have SAD, you may start to worry when there are still weeks left before the speech, and you may get so nervous that you won’t be able to speak at all.
People with SAD often demonstrate some social signs of anxiety. For instance, they might avoid social interactions and minimize social activities, even when such behavior might disrupt their everyday lives.
Sometimes, people with SAD may drink to calm down before social situations. They are often the quietest people in the room, as they may prefer to stay in the background and avoid attention.
However, such behavior isn’t the only way in which SAD may manifest itself. People with social anxiety disorder may also experience various physical symptoms, including:
- Trembling hands and shaky voice,
- Racing heartbeat,
- Shortness of breath,
- Muscle tension,
- Nausea or upset stomach.
What Causes Social Anxiety
Most often, SAD begins in childhood or teenage years. Children with social anxiety might feel extremely nervous when talking to their peers and adults, reading in class, taking tests, etc.
While there’s not enough research data to point out the exact cause of SAD, psychologists believe that this disorder can be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors.
Poorly developed social skills can contribute to the development of social anxiety. For instance, the lack of social skills may make you feel discouraged after talking to people or encountering another social situation.
Besides, SAD is linked to serotonin imbalance. This hormone plays an important role in mood and emotional regulation so problems with serotonin-related brain activities can lead to the development of SAD.
Research data also demonstrates that symptoms of social anxiety correlate with increased activity of the amygdala. People with abnormal activity of this area of the brain may have an exaggerated fear response and therefore feel increased anxiety.
Given that social anxiety often begins in childhood, some environmental factors can also play their role in the development of this disorder. For instance, children with overly protective, critical, or controlling parents have an increased risk of developing SAD. Victims of bullying and children raised in a high-conflict environment are also more likely to develop this disorder.
How to Cope With Social Anxiety
Social anxiety can have a significant negative impact on one’s quality of life, but this disorder can be treated with medication and evidence-based talk therapy approaches, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
1. Challenge your negative thoughts
People with SAD have negative thoughts that trigger anxiety and lead to unhealthy behavior. For instance, they may fixate on possible embarrassment or be afraid of being judged or rejected by others.
Here’s how you can deal with your negative thoughts to reduce anxiety:
- Identify thoughts that make you feel afraid of social situations.
- Analyze these thoughts and challenge them. You may realize that your fears are not based on real-life experiences or that they are illogical.
- For example, you may automatically expect the worst-case scenario or assume that you know what other people think.
- You may also think that all people in a certain social situation focus on you while in reality, they may be engaged in interactions with other people or focus on other things that have nothing to do with you.
- Besides, anxiety might make you blow things out of proportion so you will imagine much worse consequences of your failures than those that can actually happen.
These all are unhelpful thinking patterns so you should challenge such thoughts and not make decisions based on them.
2. Focus on others rather than yourself
When you’re feeling nervous in social situations, you may think that everyone pays attention to you and judges you. As a result, you may focus on your bodily sensations in an attempt to gain more control.
However, this way, you may only become more aware of how nervous you are so your anxiety will increase.
Instead of focusing on internal factors, switch your attention to external factors and other people. Pay attention to the things that happen around you so that you’ll be less concerned about the symptoms of anxiety that you might experience at that moment.
Don’t think of what others might say or do but stay present in the current moment. You cannot predict other people’s reactions because you don’t know what they think and want. Keep in mind that your anxiety isn’t obvious to people around you. Besides, others might also feel nervous so don’t be ashamed of your emotions.
3. Learn to control your breath
If you suffer from social anxiety, you may lose control over your breath so you might start to breathe quickly, taking more oxygen. Hyperventilation can disrupt the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen in your body and lead to various physical symptoms of anxiety, such as muscle tension, racing heartbeat, and dizziness.
Do breathing exercises to slow down your breath. There are many breathing techniques with different time intervals for inhaling and exhaling, but most of them are based on the same principle.
Inhale slowly and deeply, hold your breath for a few seconds, and then slowly exhale. Repeat such exercises until you calm down.
4. Go out there
As we’ve already mentioned above, SAD can make you avoid social situations. However, you can only avoid them to a certain extent, and complete withdrawal from social interactions can seriously affect your overall quality of life. Besides, such behavior will only fuel your anxiety.
Therefore, it’s important to face your fears from time to time and get out there. While you may not be able to perform on a stage or attend big parties immediately, you can gradually move toward more challenging social situations.
Start small: accept an invitation to dinner, ask your coworkers work-related questions, or have a small talk with your neighbor. Overcoming social anxiety may take some time so be patient and don’t blame yourself for failures.
5. Consider therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety has proven to be effective, so if you experience symptoms of SAD, talking to a licensed therapist is a great solution. With little help from a professional, you’ll be able to figure out what thoughts and events trigger anxiety and learn how to reduce its symptoms.
If you’ve never visited a therapist before, you can learn more about therapy so that you will know what to expect from your first session. Eventually, you might realize that talking to a stranger is easier than sharing your worries with the people you know. You just have to make the first step.
Social anxiety disorder is a very common problem that can negatively impact one’s personal and professional life. You can learn how to help someone with anxiety disorder and use our self-help tips to cope with symptoms of anxiety if you suffer from it.
Social anxiety can be treated so if you experience its symptoms, don’t hesitate to get professional help and support.
While in-person therapy might be inconvenient for people with tight work schedules, there are also online therapy platforms like Calmerry that enable you to talk to a licensed therapist remotely.
Messaging and video calls can also be less stressful for people with SAD because such communication doesn’t require you to be physically present in the same room with the therapist.