Just a Bit About Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is a topic that is very close to my heart. It’s something I have had issues with my whole life, and now (at 20 years old) I am being forced to deal with it before it completely runs my life. So what better way to help me, and others, than to do a bit of research and share a bit more about social anxiety and social phobia.
Social anxiety is categorised by a high level of shyness that is more extreme than average. It is an intense fear of social situations, which causes the person to get frightened just thinking about social situations that make them feel anxious. It may not sound like much, but trust me it is extremely disabling. It gets in the way of your every day life and makes all forms of relationships extremely difficult.
There are many different ways that this anxiety can be triggered. The most common one, I think, is public speaking. Many people experience at least a little bit of anxiety when it comes to speaking in public or even just presenting to a class of 5-10 people. But other triggers include meeting new people, being the centre of attention, going to a party, using public bathrooms, eating in public, and my personal favourite – talking on the phone.
Although these can all be pretty isolated triggers for some people, if you’re like me they won’t be. In fact, my anxiety is pretty much triggered by any form of social interaction whatsoever. Just leaving the house is stressful for me.
There are many symptoms of anxiety, both emotional and physical. It could cause sweating, blushing, butterflies in the stomach or a rapid heart rate. It can even cause panic attacks, light headedness, or what I call ‘electric shock syndrome’ (where you feel like you are randomly being shocked at intervals because you are too aware of your own body). In fact, many people may suffer unusual and unique symptoms of anxiety. I get dizzy a lot, or feel like I am having a drug induced high (but without the drugs) when faced with uncomfortable social situations.
So as you can see, social anxiety can be extremely disabling for the sufferer, as the symptoms can seriously take over your life.
There are four main theories surrounding the cause of social anxiety. There are probably more than four over all, but I am only going to briefly discuss these four, or we will be here all day.
1. According to behavioural psychology there is a big influence of past experiences on our current feelings of anxiety. Past experiences can condition us to feel a particular way about situations, and if we have been exposed to a negative situation, that is likely to be used as a blue print next time we face that particular situation. So, in simpler terms, if you have experienced humiliation in a social situation in the past, this will trigger a similar response the next time you face that particular social situation.
2. Thinking styles also have a very strong bearing on our social anxiety. I am actually a very negative thinker, and always assume that the worst is going to happen. I tell myself this is to avoid disappointment, but really it is very damaging to my everyday life. Unhealthy thinking styles, such as negative thinking, can also lead to a vicious circle in social situations. So, if you think that something bad is going to happen – for example, that you will say something stupid – you will spend the entire time focusing on everything you say trying not to say something stupid. But this actually causes you to say something stupid, because you trying so hard not to. That will then reinforce that you say stupid things in social situations, and so the next time you are in one the cycle will start again.
3. Believe it or not, there is also an evolutionary background proposed for social anxiety. As humans are social beings, we thrive in the company of others (or at least we are supposed to). Through this, we aim to avoid upsetting others, as well as being rejected. So evolutionary psychologists believe that people who suffer from social anxiety are simply over sensitive to this. We go out of our way to avoid upsetting people, putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, and causing more anxiety the more we try to avoid it.
4. And finally, the genetic links proposed by biological psychology. As with many psychological issues, anxiety has a strong genetic component. In fact, if there is someone in your immediate family who suffers from social anxiety, then it is very likely that you will too.
But, as with all psychological theories, it is very unlikely that just one of these causes social anxiety. There are many possible causes of social anxiety, some of which may not have even been investigated yet – so maybe focusing on the cause isn’t the best way to deal with it.
There are many reasons why social anxiety is difficult to overcome. I mean, it’s taken me 20 years to even start considering it, which shows how daunting it can be. It’s not something that is going to happen over night, or even in a year. It takes a lot of time, patience and a lot of effort.
So, in light of that, here are some of the issues that sufferers need to tackle in order to overcome social anxiety.
We have already mentioned that unhelpful thought patterns play a strong role in the cause of anxiety. But, it also plays an important role in maintaining anxiety. This can involve holding unhelpful thoughts about yourself, the social situation itself, or even your ability to perform in the situation. From this our self confidence and self esteem is lowered, making it much harder to engage in social situations – so we get less practice and less opportunities to prove our thoughts and beliefs wrong.
Unhelpful thoughts have a very damaging effect on our social abilities. Not only do we assume we are doing a terrible job at being social, we over analyse every single one of our actions after the situation is over. In my case, I am very good at pinpointing every single stupid thing that I have done or said after a social situation, so much so that I can’t actually sleep properly. And trust me, there is literally one every minute. So if you think you are abnormal, you are not,
Avoidance is probably the worst way to deal with social anxiety. It’s entirely understandable, but is extremely unhelpful. Following the bombardment of unhelpful thoughts when you attempt to engage in a social situation, it is really hard to get the motivation to actually try again. So you avoid it, or escape the situation as soon as you can. On more than one occasion I have left a social gathering early because “I have to be up early the next day” or “I really don’t feel well” – when really I just want to crawl into bed and cry away my anxiety. But, by doing this, we stop our chances of actually experiencing a positive social interaction. This is an important part of overcoming social anxiety as the more positive experiences we build up, the more information we have to challenge our unhelpful thoughts.
A lot of people suffering from social anxiety also develop safety behaviours for social situations. For example, you may make sure you stay in the background, or keep quiet, avoid eye contact, or (my favourite) drinking alcohol for courage. These all seem good to us as they make coping with the anxiety easier. But they are NOT helpful. Not only do they stop us from seeing that we are capable in social situations, meaning that our confidence stays low and anxiety stays high, they also cause ‘fulfilling prophecies’. If we keep quiet, or stay in the background then people will start to think that this is our personality and will treat us as a quiet person. This makes it even harder for us to tackle our anxiety, as people will never get the chance to know the real us.
My biggest safety behaviour is just to tell people that I’m tired. I sit quietly and shrug off conversations, look at the floor, and just stay in my own mind. But that actually started to draw more unwanted attention to me, as people were worried why I was tired all the time, and actually gave them a shock when I started to come out of my shell. People didn’t know how to deal with the energetic me, and that actually caused my anxiety to worsen. Which wasn’t the aim at all. So if you can avoid this, please try to.
One that I am sure everyone has experienced at some point in their lives is increased self focus. Social anxiety causes us to be very aware of our own bodies and actions – including things that we say. And this, in turn, causes us to become more anxious. For example, one of the symptoms of anxiety is sweating – and sweating can be very embarrassing. But the more we focus on the fact that we are sweating, or worry about whether we are sweating or not, the more likely we are to sweat (and once again, the cycle will go on from there).
But this is also a problem because the more focused we are on ourselves, the less focused we are on the conversation or the situation itself. This, like safety behaviours, will cause others to believe that this is the type of person you are, and will also make it much harder for you to join in.
So, that is a not-so-brief outline of social anxiety. But maybe we should go on to the more important aspect of social anxiety- ways to tackle it. As I have said before, I have recently needed to tackle my social anxiety – it actually caused me many problems this year during my degree and I have lost many good friends because of it – so I feel this is a topic very close to my heart.
1. Challenge Your Unhelpful Thoughts
This one may seem like an obvious one, but it isn’t as simple as saying “what I’m thinking is wrong”, as that is an impossible statement to believe. It will start by simply questioning your thoughts – often you will find that they are based on assumptions and not facts.
There are four main patterns of unhelpful thinking; mind reading (assuming you know what others are thinking); fortune telling (trying to predict the future from past experiences); catastrophising (assuming the worst is going to happen, or making out things are worse than they are); and personalising (taking everything personally). I will openly admit that I use all four of these pretty much every day, and they are a massive trigger in my brain that causes more and more anxiety every second. It’s easy to feel trapped by your anxiety, especially in social situations, so try and challenge these thoughts where you can.
Start simply, however, don’t try to take on too much too soon (I did that and it ended very badly – I had to go back and start from scratch). Ask yourself questions like “do you know that this is what others are thinking?” or “are you taking this a bit too personally?” This way your brain will slowly wake up to a more helpful way of thinking. The most important thing to remember is to try and find actual evidence for your unhelpful thoughts. If you think you look bad, ask yourself “besides the way I feel about it, is there any evidence that I actually do look bad?” Has anyone told you that you look bad? Or made any indication that you do? I am telling you, even if you do actually look bad, no one will care enough to actually make a problem out of it.
I know this is easier said than done, but it definitely a step in the right direction. People really don’t care as much as you think they do.
2. Reduce Internal Focus
This will be much easier once you have started to challenge your unhelpful thoughts, as you will begin to care a little less about doing something stupid. Remember that anxiety is a mental state, and is less visible than you think. People won’t look at you and instantly know that you are anxious – I’ve had countless situations where I have been shaking with anxiety and no one has even batted an eyelid.
Also, people are more understanding than we give them credit for. They won’t judge you for being anxious, and they will probably know where you’re coming from as everyone experiences anxiety at least once in their life. ANXIETY DOESN’T MEAN POOR PERFORMANCE! So take some pressure off yourself.
It’s also important to be aware that even though it feels like people are watching your every move, you are NOT the focus of everyone’s attention. If you’re in your own head a lot during a conversation, then you are probably not the only one. And if people are talking, they are focusing on the conversation – not on how you look, whether you are sweating, or if you are saying too much/too little. Try to focus on the conversation yourself, just like the other people around you. This will act as a massive distraction from your anxieties. Your mind will be occupied, and you’ll also be less likely to over analyse your actions afterwards.
You also need to know that no body is perfect. We are all flawed. So give yourself a break, and be yourself.
3. Remove Avoidance and Safety Behaviours
This is definitely the hardest, and most complicated way of tackling anxiety – it involves a couple of stages. But this step also tackles the most damaging part of social anxiety. Nothing that is worth having comes easy right? So we need to gradually confront the anxiety in our minds, through exposure and just plain gritting our teeth.
Firstly you need to make a list of all the social situations that cause you anxiety. This can be something big, such as meeting new people, or something as small as making phone calls or walking down the street. Then, rank them on a scale of 1-50 (or whatever number you want) based on which situation causes the you the most anxiety. This way you can see the order you need to confront them.
So start with the situation that causes you the least anxiety, and expose yourself to it. I know what you’re thinking right? “Why would I put myself through something that causes me such anxiety, when I could just avoid it?” But trust me, it really is the only good way to be able to face the situation. You have to keep exposing yourself to it until it is no longer a problem – or at least until it is manageable.
Once you find the first thing on your list manageable, move onto the second – don’t try to do more than one at a time otherwise you will have an anxiety overload!
One of my biggest social anxiety issues is that I hate being in a large group of people. I much prefer to just hang out with one person at a time – but living in Hong Kong now I have a massive group of friends who all hang out together. Sometimes there can be over 20 of us in one group. My worst nightmare.
Every time I need to face these situations, knowing that there will be all these people there, I suffer extreme forms of anxiety. I get panic attacks, I feel like I’m going to faint, and everything inside me is telling me to just stay home. But I force myself through it. And it is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I go through it on a weekly basis. But it’s probably the most rewarding thing too. I still struggle a lot with it, and sometimes I need to leave dinners and events early because I just can’t face up to it anymore. But the more I try, the easier it gets. And the more I go to these social gatherings, the more people I meet that I can have one on one time with – which is great for me.
So trust me, it may be tough, but it is worth it in the end.
4. Control Your Breathing
This one is a pretty easy one, but do not underestimate how helpful it is. Breathing helps us to regulate our emotions. Over breathing will throw off the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, and will then lead to physical symptoms of anxiety – and the faster or less regulated your breathing gets, the worse the symptoms will be.
Try doing breathing exercises, and focus on slower breathing, as they can really help to calm you down and put your anxiety in a more manageable state. Do not be afraid to excuse yourself to do this, you could even simply go to the bathroom in order to do this. No one will ever know the real reason, no one needs to know. But if you need quiet time to yourself then this could be a good way to get it.
I have been told that I’m quite an introverted person – those of you who knew me in high school may find this hard to believe – and so my therapist has suggested this very tactic to help me deal with my anxiety. It is okay to need some quiet time to yourself, it doesn’t make you any less of a social person. Just take ten minutes, have a breather, and return more composed and more prepared to deal with the social situation. It’s helped me a lot just having this in my head, and it’s not as embarrassing as you’d first think.
5. Professional Help
Finally, if you are seriously struggling with social anxiety, please do not be afraid to ask for professional help. Therapy has been an amazing step for me, and has helped me an unbelievable amount in many ways. There are different paths you can take to get help, such as therapy, CBT or even just counselling. Group therapy may help you tackle anxiety around bigger groups of people, and also help you to be a more open person. Or maybe you would just like some strategies to take away with you. Asking for help doesn’t make you weak, or vulnerable – it actually makes you stonger because you were willing to do it and take that step. So I really do urge you to do this.
I hope this extremely long post has helped some of you out there learn more about social anxiety. And if you have any further questions, don’t be afraid to contact me.