Do you feel nervous around people you don’t know or when you meet someone for the first time? What about when you have to speak in front of other people? How do you feel when your friends and family sing “Happy Birthday” to you? If you are a student and the professor calls on you and asks you questions during your class in front of the whole room, do you get anxious? These are common with Social Anxiety.
When there’s a lull in the conversation during a get-together, do you feel uncomfortable? You want to say something to break the silence, but can’t summon the courage?
Your neighbors’ noisy parties are driving you insane, but you feel uncomfortable asking them to be quieter?
If you feel anxious in most of these situations (or get anxious just imagining being in them), it is very likely that you’re suffering from social anxiety. There are great misconceptions about this disorder, manifested in deadpan jokes such as, “I thought I had social anxiety. Turns out I just hate people. What a relief!” Social anxiety, however, is no laughing matter.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is the fear of interacting with other people. Those who suffer from it are afraid of being judged, because they tend to be too hard on themselves. Their low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence make them afraid that everyone else will be judging them the way that they judge themselves. This makes them avoid social situations so they don’t have to deal with feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, and sadness.
Social anxiety is one of the biggest mental health care problems in the world today. Millions of people suffer from this devastating condition.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder
People who suffer from social anxiety disorder tend to experience great emotional distress when being introduced to others, when they find themselves at the center of attention or if they are being watched while doing something. They feel nervous in most social encounters, especially with strangers, and also if they are being criticized. The physiological manifestations of social anxiety include a “racing” heart, deep and intense fear, blushing, dryness in the mouth and throat, excessive sweating, trembling, difficulty swallowing and muscle twitches. It doesn’t help being told these fears are irrational – people with social anxiety know they are. Yet, the fears persist. Anxious thoughts and feelings do not go away even though these people “face their fears” all the time – it is almost impossible to avoid all social situations, and you may have noticed that avoidance exacerbates the problem. You’ll find it really helpful to face the social situations you are afraid of rather than avoid them.
Avoidance fuels social anxiety. It makes you feel better in the short term, but prevents you from becoming less fearful in social situations and from learning how to cope in the long run. The more you avoid a stressful social situation, the scarier it becomes. Avoidance may also be keeping you from doing things you want or reaching certain goals. A fear of public speaking could keep you from sharing your amazing, creative ideas at work, standing out in class or making new friends.
How to be Social with Social Anxiety
It is possible to overcome social anxiety, but not without making an effort. This includes actively seeking out a supportive social environment. As a start, you could take a social skills or assertiveness training course. Such are often offered at local community colleges or adult education centers.
Volunteering is another helpful approach. You could volunteer to do something you enjoy, like making flyers for a campaign. Anything that will give you an activity to concentrate on while communicating with like-minded people will help.
If you are really awkward or nervous around others, trying to “face your fears” may seem like torture. It is, however, possible to block self-critical thoughts, become more confident, enhance your self-esteem level, and become more secure in social situations. You don’t have to change who you are as a person. You can get past your fears and nurture rewarding friendships just by learning new skills and adopting a different outlook.
This begins with challenging negative thoughts. Social anxiety sufferers have negative ideas and beliefs that exacerbate their anxiety, such as, “I know I’ll end up looking like a fool” or “My voice will start shaking and I’ll embarrass myself.” Other negative thoughts include “Everyone there will think I’m stupid” and “I’ll look boring because I never have anything to say.” Recognizing and protecting yourself from negative thoughts is an effective approach to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety.
How does this work? The first step is to recognize and begin to identify automatic negative thought patterns that underlie your fear of social interaction. For instance, if you’re worried about an upcoming presentation you have to give before co-workers and your boss, the underlying negative idea might be that you will fail and everyone will think you’re completely unprofessional and incompetent. The next step is to evaluate and challenge these thoughts. You can do this by asking yourself questions about them, such as: “Do I know for sure that the presentation won’t go well?” or “Even if people sense I’m nervous, do I know for a fact that they’ll think I’m incompetent?” This logical evaluation of your negative thoughts and beliefs will help you gradually replace them with positive and more realistic ways of looking at social situations that provoke your anxiety.
It can be incredibly frightening to think about why you think and feel a certain way, but it’s an effort worth making, because understanding the reasons behind your anxiety will help reduce its negative impact on your life.
Certain thought patterns can fuel social anxiety. These include what I call fortune telling, mind reading, personalizing, and focusing on worst-case scenarios.
Fortune telling – “Telling” the future, usually seeing situations developing in terrible ways. You know things will go horribly, so you get anxious before you’re even in the situation in question.
Mind reading – Assuming you know what other people are thinking. You are sure they see you in the same negative way you see yourself.
Worst-case scenario – Everything seems like a catastrophe. You over exaggerate things. It’s going to be a disaster if people notice that you’re nervous.
Personalizing – This is the conviction that people are focusing on you in a negative way or, for that matter, focusing on you at all. What people think or do has nothing to do with you in the vast majority of situations.
Focus on others, not yourself
When people are in social situations that make them nervous, they tend to focus too much on their anxious thoughts and feelings. This is understandable, because these can seem overwhelming. What is more, people feel that by paying extra close attention to their physical and emotional sensations, they can better manage the situation. The excessive self-focus just triggers worse anxiety because it makes them more aware of how terrible they feel. It also prevents them from fully concentrating on the conversations around them.
Everyone is NOT looking at you
Switching your focus – from internal to external – can go a long way toward reducing social anxiety. This is simple to understand because you can’t pay attention to two things at once. The more you focus on what’s happening around you, the less you’ll be affected by anxiety.
Focus your attention on those around you, but not on what they may or may not be thinking. Anxiety isn’t as obvious as you think. And even if someone notices that you’re nervous, that doesn’t mean they’ll think something bad about you. This is easier to achieve by really listening to what is being said, not to your own negative thoughts. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say – focus on the present moment. You don’t need to try to be perfect. Being real and attentive is more important—these are qualities people always appreciate.
The value of breathing exercises
Breathing correctly is at the core of most meditation practices, and it’s also key to improving mindfulness. Learning to slow your breathing can help bring symptoms of anxiety under control.
You can try the following breathing exercise to keep calm, especially when you find yourself at the centre of attention.
- Sit comfortably with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Put one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
- Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose for 6 seconds. The hand on your stomach should rise, while the hand on your chest should move very little.
- Hold the breath for 3 seconds.
- Now breathe out slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds, pushing out as much air as you possibly can. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but the one on your chest should move very little.
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on keeping a slow and steady breathing pattern of 6-in, 3-hold, and 8-out.
It may seem impossible to overcome a stressful social situation, but you can do it, one small step at a time. I suggest starting with a less scary situation and gradually working your way up to more stressful ones. Your confidence and coping skills will improve with time. Trying to face your biggest fear right away isn’t a good idea – it may backfire and intensify your anxiety.
Be patient. It takes time and effort to overcome social anxiety and it’s a gradual step-by-step progress. Focus on your breathing and challenge negative thoughts and assumptions – this will take you a long way.
Combat anxiety by making lifestyle changes
The mind and the body are one indivisible whole. There is mounting scientific evidence of the connection between one’s lifestyle and level of anxiety. The way people treat their bodies can have a significant impact on their anxiety levels, their ability to manage anxiety symptoms, and their self-esteem in general. Of course, lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough to overcome social anxiety disorder, but they can enhance the rate of overall treatment progress.
Limit caffeine. You might want to consider limiting caffeine, if you can’t completely avoid it. Coffee, tea, energy drinks and certain soft drinks act as stimulants, which tend to exacerbate anxiety symptoms.
Drink moderately. Again, I am not suggesting cutting alcohol out completely – some types of alcohol (red wine) can have its health benefits. Those aside, it’s unwise to self-medicate with it. I mentioned earlier that drinking before a gathering to soothe your nerves is a feature of an anxiety disorder. If you overdrink, the likelihood of having an anxiety attack increases.
Make physical activity a priority—20 minutes per day if you can. If you don’t like exercising, try pairing it with something you enjoy, like dancing to your favourite music.
Nicotine is a powerful stimulant, which has been shown to lead to higher levels of anxiety.
When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more prone to anxiety attacks. Being well rested getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night will help you stay calm in stressful social situations and help your nervous system to function more effectively.
Sometimes self-help isn’t enough. If you’ve tried these techniques and you’re still struggling with social anxiety, you may need the help of a psychologist. Or perhaps you are already receiving some sort of help. If your help consists of just the simple “face your fears, they’ll go away”, that “it’s all in your head” and “your fears are irrational” or something along those lines, then this is typically not helpful at all. Those suffering from this debilitating condition have faced their fears ever since birth. It is of paramount importance that you find a psychologist who understands social anxiety disorder completely so that you can get the most effective help possible.
When you’re in the middle of social anxiety, it can feel hopeless. It seems that you’ll never get any better. The good news? Absolutely can improve and even resolve completely, and by putting in the effort to make the changes, it can improve fairly quickly for most people. If you feel that you’re stuck with getting grips of your social anxiety and would like professional help with this from an understanding and supportive Clinical Psychologist, contact our practice today to discuss how Ashley Gilmour, our Gold Coast Psychologist can help you with your social anxiety.
If you find yourself struggling with dealing with anxiety or nervousness in social situations, contact us today on 07 5574 3888 or email [email protected] to discuss how Ashley our Gold Coast Psychologist can help you to start to feel happier, less anxious and live a more fulfilling life again.Book Appointment Online