How to deal with social anxiety
Lots of us experience shyness or a lack of confidence in social situations. Social anxiety disorder is more extreme than this – typically involving a heightened self-consciousness, driven by a strong fear of being negatively judged by people. This can lead someone with social anxiety to avoid situations in which they’ll have to be around others.
_The American Psychiatric Association defines social anxiety as “a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others”.
People with social anxiety experience this in different ways. They might be concerned about how others perceive them – worrying that they’ll think they’re boring or unattractive, for example. They could feel fine in a group of friends, but be gripped by fear if they have to speak in a meeting in front of their boss and colleagues. Someone who has a tendency to blush, sweat or stutter might agonise over whether this will happen, and worry that people will laugh at them because of it.
It’s common in social anxiety to be bothered be questions like ‘Is everyone looking at me?’, ‘What did she mean when she said that?’ or ‘Did I just say something stupid?’, and to experience physical symptoms such as feeling sick or having butterflies.
Feeling this way can make it impossible for people with social anxiety to enjoy themselves, or perform well. Because they’re preoccupied with what others are thinking of them, rather than viewing a situation from their own perspective they try to look through others’ eyes and anticipate their thoughts. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: they’re unlikely to be fully engaged in the interaction, so people might find them distant, and they’ll also miss any good things that might happen. It’s not possible to have a proper conversation, for instance, if you’re focused on how you’re coming across, or imagining what’s going through other people’s minds.
For many people with social anxiety, the worry doesn’t end when the interaction finishes! There’s usually a ‘post mortem’, when they review what happened, mull over the mistakes they think they’ve made, criticise themselves and feel down.
Having a poor interaction will make someone with social anxiety more likely to dread similar situations in the future, and try their best to avoid them. Or they’ll go – usually because they have to – and feel uncomfortable the whole time. That’s how the cycle continues.
Social anxiety can have an impact on people’s quality of life and happiness. Someone might drop out of school or college earlier, find it hard to form fulfilling relationships, or stay in a job which bores them but which feels ‘safe’. Social anxiety disorder used to be known as ‘social phobia’. In some ways, it’s similar to a phobia – but unlike flying or snakes, very often social situations are hard to avoid! Living in a busy world, with jobs, family and friends can expose someone to many potential triggers, all the time.
If your social anxiety is fairly mild and you feel able to try to tackle it yourself, learning to think objectively about the situations that trigger it can make it easier to deal with, so try some of these tips:
Get out of your own head! Make a concerted effort to notice your surroundings and look at people, to shift your focus from yourself to the environment around you.
Be in the moment. When you’re talking to someone, listen and concentrate on what they’re saying rather than wondering how you’re coming across, or thinking about what you’ll say next.
Challenge your thoughts. What evidence do you have that – for example – someone has decided you’re not interesting, or unattractive?
Don’t forget about the good bits. Instead of fixating on the negatives, notice and remember if you make someone laugh, or you have an interesting chat with a new person.
Be aware that the more you avoid social situations, the worse your anxiety will get. If there’s an opportunity to socialise, take it if you can.
Don’t be afraid of silences. Interactions ebb and flow – it doesn’t mean you’re boring someone, they don’t like you, or the conversation has ended!
Remember it’s normal not to ‘click’ with everyone. Sometimes you’ll meet someone you don’t get on with, or you’ll have an awkward interaction. It’s not you, it’s just being human!
Don’t be tempted to use alcohol as a social lubricant. It can help to take the edge off, but will probably make the ‘post mortem’ worse! There’s also the risk it will become a crutch.
Many people have feelings of social anxiety for several years before seeking help. If you’ve been struggling for a while, and you’re finding it difficult to manage, you might want to think about getting help as soon as you feel ready.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a very effective treatment for this disorder. During your sessions, the therapist will guide you in challenging the beliefs and views you have about yourself in social situations. For example, if you’re afraid that you’re blushing bright red, it’s probably less exaggerated than you imagine. If you are blushing, will people notice? And if they do notice, will they judge you? Probably not!
This can be reinforced by doing experiments: going into social situations and deliberately doing things differently, for example starting a conversation whereas normally you’d hold back. It can also help to find out how others really see you, by asking your friends and family how you come across in social situations. If you feel okay with it, you can even video yourself having a conversation and then watch it back with an objective head on! Your therapist will only ask you to do these experiments if you’re happy to, and you have a good understanding of why they might be useful.
High quality online CBT is as effective as face-to-face treatment, and could be a good option for people with social anxiety, who might find it easier to ‘talk’ to a stranger online rather than in person. You can read more about the benefits of typing in therapy and what to expect during online CBT.