For most people, it’s normal to feel a bit uncomfortable or anxious in social situations, especially if you’re dealing with high-pressure situations like public speaking. These normal levels of discomfort, while unpleasant, usually don’t prevent people from interacting socially.
For some people, however, anxiety in social situations can be debilitating and can permeate all types of interactions from high-stress situations to something as simple as ordering a coffee.
Social anxiety can make even the simplest social interactions incredibly difficult to manage. Anxious people can struggle to communicate, assert themselves or make themselves heard. This can make it difficult to start or maintain relationships, pursue work or education opportunities and can affect quality of life and physical and mental health. In extreme cases it can contribute to depression and have adverse effects on physical health.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is about more than just feeling uncomfortable around people. It’s effectively a social phobia that can make interacting with people into an exhausting mental and physical battle.
People with social anxiety often feel an excessive and persistent fear of being judged by others. Socially anxious people can see themselves as ugly, worthless, strange and awkward. Even basic interactions can bring with them a debilitating fear of embarrassment or humiliation.
Social anxiety can manifest itself in physical ways. These include sweating, shaking or trembling, stuttering, blushing or even as nausea or gastric distress. Any of these physical symptoms can work to heighten the anxiety as sufferers can perceive the presence of these symptoms as further signs of their inability to function socially.
Social anxiety can also lead to severe psychological symptoms. These include low self-esteem, negative and self-critical thoughts, advance worry and stress about upcoming social interactions, dwelling on past social interactions, negative assumptions about other people, and social avoidance behaviours. Social anxiety has also been linked to eating disorders.
If people use alcohol or drugs to cope with social situations, it can lead to serious addiction problems.
From the outside, these symptoms may not even be noticeable to other people. In fact, the socially anxious person may seem to be acting normally. But for the sufferer, the basic social interaction can be incredibly distressing and potentially traumatic.
What to do about it
If you suffer from social anxiety, or you know someone who does, it’s important to address it. The best psychologists will be able to provide a range of therapies and strategies designed to help ease social interactions, recognise and understand the stressors and triggers and explore the past traumas and personality traits that contribute to a person’s anxiety.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is one of the most common therapeutic approaches for managing anxiety. In some cases, health professionals may also recommend medications to help manage severe anxiety.
Besides psychotherapy, there are a number of other strategies you can use to help you manage your anxiety during or in the lead up to social situations.
Deep Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing exercises are a simple but surprisingly effective way to reduce your levels of anxiety. Deep breathing is a useful mindfulness technique. It can help to distract from anxious thoughts and connect your mind and body.
Simply take deep evenly spaced breaths through your nose. Focus on your breath and how it feels moving through your body and try to feel any tension leaving your body.
Challenge Negative Thoughts
A lot of social anxiety is tied up in the negative ways we think about ourselves and others. The socially anxious person will tend to lead with negative thoughts in social situations either as a defensive or an avoidance mechanism. This negativity can often be self-fulfilling; that is, thinking the situation will be bad is likely to make it so.
For example, if an anxious person thinks “this person doesn’t like me” they are more likely to act defensively or aggressively, perhaps even giving them reason to not be liked. Instead of thinking “this person doesn’t like me”, try challenging that negative assumption. Remind yourself that “this person doesn’t know me” or “I don’t know what this person thinks about me.”
Challenging this negativity is a useful cognitive behavioural strategy. Over time, you will become more conscious of the negative thought patterns and can even change your behaviour so the negative thoughts aren’t your immediate go to.
Face your Fears
Facing your social fears can be a great way to either overcome them or at least get more practice in managing your anxiety. Instead of avoiding social situations, try to expose yourself to more socialising. The more practice you get, the more comfortable you will become.
Remember that for some people, too much too fast can be detrimental, so don’t start with intense social situations. It can be helpful to start with controlled or familiar social situations or those where you have support. Socialising with the support of a good friend can ease some of the tensions.
Understand your Non-verbal Communication
Many socially anxious people unconsciously give off a “closed off” vibe via defensive or anxious body language. Consciously working to give off more open signals helps to make a socially anxious person more approachable and welcoming and can make you feel more comfortable and confident
Develop Conversational and Listening Skills
For a lot of people, anxiety can stem from not knowing how to naturally interact with other people. Learning conversational techniques and listening skills can help to prepare you and make you more comfortable when socialising. This can be as simple as practising small talk or actively listening and responding to what people say rather than worrying about what you should say next.
If you, or a loved one, suffer from social anxiety, seeking help from a qualified psychologist is one of the best ways to address the issue.