We all have felt the feelings of social anxiety.
We walk into a room where we don’t know a soul and everyone else seems to be socializing like they’ve known each other for years. Like crashing a high school class reunion with only the popular kids in attendance. We begin to sweat, our hearts begins to race, we feel a little dizzy. Our stomach is in knots and my god, what do we do with our hands?!
What is Social Anxiety
According to the Social Anxiety Association (yes, there is such an organization), social anxiety (a.k.a. social phobia) is the third largest mental health care issue in the world after alcoholism and depression. 7% of the world population suffers from some form of social anxiety disorder on a consistent basis. But probably all of us have felt the effects of it at one point in our lives (unless you’re a psychopath).
As the Social Anxiety Association (SAA) defines, social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. It brings about the anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated.
People with social anxiety are perceived by others as being shy, quiet, withdrawn, inhibited, unfriendly, nervous, aloof, and disinterested. But these may be the outward appearances of someone who is internalizing a paralyzing apprehension.
Typical scenarios when anxiety goes into overdrive include:
Being introduced to other people
Being teased or criticized
Being the center of attention
Being watched while doing something
Meeting people in authority
Social encounters, especially with strangers
Going around the room (or table) in a circle and having to say something
Interpersonal relationships, whether friendships or romantic
As these scenarios can make up so many instances in our daily lives, having social anxiety can turn ordinary life into hell. For those that suffer from it, great lengths are taken to avoid situations in which they would have to participate in social engagement.
For those that have to engage with others, the pain can be agonizing. These feelings can last for an extended period of time especially if not professionally addressed. But before we go there, let’s highlight a few other social “conditions” that sometimes get lumped into this category, sometimes incorrectly.
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Being Socially Awkward
This is a first cousin of social anxiety, not a sibling. Those that would be categorized as socially awkward tend to have a hard time navigating routine social interactions and abiding by unspoken social norms. They may seem insensitive or rude.
According to Ty Tashiro author of Awkward: The Science of Why We're Socially Awkward & Why That's Awesome awkward individuals have an unusually intense focus, which gravitates toward interests governed by rules, such as those of logic or math. With laser focus on the objective data and facts, they often miss the subtleties of the social dance that most others navigate instinctively. People on the autism spectrum may exhibit some of these social behaviors.
People who are shy are so because it’s their inherent personality. According to a study published in the Journal of Current Psychiatry and explained further by the Social Anxiety Institute, shyness is considered a normal facet of personality. It combines some of the experiences of social anxiety and inhibited behavior but is also describes a stable temperament.
Meaning, people who are shy do not feel the visceral fear, embarrassment, or humiliation in social performance-based situations. They instead feel neutral about their shyness. They don’t consider it a personality defect, just a fact of who they are.
Like shyness, introversion is a personality trait. As identified by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, and further described by the Myers Briggs Foundation, introversion and extraversion are opposing psychological preferences that describe how individuals prefer to focus and gather their energy.
Extroverts look to the outer world to boost their energy while introverts orient themselves more inwardly. Like shyness, those that have an introvert orientation are not by default anxious or fearful in social situations, they just may not prefer them as much.
As with many things in the field of psychology, these respective conditions are not exclusive nor contained within nicely defined edges. Paradoxically someone could be socially anxious while inherently having an outgoing personality.
Where Does Social Anxiety Come From?
Because it’s a condition and not a personality trait, a person is not born with social anxiety. Instead, it develops through socialization starting at a very young age when he or she is most impressionable. It could have started in the home with parents or relatives that sent a wrong message (what will the neighbors think?) but it likely accelerated in adolescence. The ultimate crucible.
I remember when I was about thirteen or fourteen I developed social anxiety around going to the mall alone. Even though I was planning to meet friends, the idea of sitting there alone terrified me. I felt crippling (and yes irrational) fear that everyone at the mall would just stare at me and wondering why I was there alone. One time I even asked my mother to take me home immediately as soon as we arrived. I wanted to throw up.
As I recall that time now, I see how illogical it was but I remember the palpable fear. It wasn’t something I could just “shake off”. Because I know this feeling, I am all the more sympathetic to today’s youth that probably deals with such feeling more often due to the prevalence of harsh online exchanges.
Today there are more instances of bullying online and offline which is the precursor to much of this anxiety. The effects of bullying impacts thinking at such a young age when brains are not yet fully developed and the social relationships among peers are of heightened importance. At such tender ages, kids don’t have the discernment nor maturity to separate themselves from such toxic social dynamics.
The Social Media Mirage
With such a perilous endgame lurking, the modern social society has not helped matters. Through our social media feeds we look upon others’ curated (and perceived better) lives and cannot help but feel inadequate.
This reinforces a compulsion to present ourselves as near perfect while disregarding the messiness of life and its inherent complications and emotions.
With this kind of ever-present pressure, the easiest and safest thing to do is to hold back. But while we hold back, we increase our isolation and distort the perception of our self-worth further. It becomes a vicious downward spiral.
But the truth is, these people who we admire in our social media worlds have problems just like the rest of us, they’re just better at hiding it.
How We Think Impacts Our Social Anxiety
Because social anxiety is an acquired condition it can be improved or worsened by the energy we give it. Therefore we need to be vigilant of the stories we tell ourselves. As perception is reality, we need to perceive things right. Let me give you an illustration.
Think about printed money. We as a society collectively agree and believe that this physical paper with ink on it denotes value. The value we assign it changes depending on which numbers are printed on them. We all believe in this value so much that the thought of losing a $100 bill, for example, could make us panic a little. But fundamentally it's just paper and ink.
The same principle applies in how we perceive ourselves in social settings. The negative things that may be swirling in our heads are just distorted perceptions of the situations we’re in. The problem grows when we feed this negative feedback loop and eventually can’t distinguish between a skewed mindset and neutral reality.
Treatment for Social Anxiety
The good news is that the converse is true. If we focus on reinforcing positive beliefs about ourselves in social situations, our outlook improves and we feel more rational and in balance. It may sound like hocus pocus but it’s true. This is the basis for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which therapists use to help patients reframe negative beliefs and emotions.
According to SAA, CBT is remarkably effective in treating social anxiety disorders. As cited by SAA, thousands of research studies now indicate that, after the completion of social anxiety-specific CBT, people with a social anxiety disorder improve considerably.
Reducing Social Media Use to Help Ease Social Anxiety
As mentioned earlier, exposure to social media can have harmful side effects. From subtly comparing ourselves to others to being the victim of overt bullying, the online social media world is a dangerous landmine for anyone who suffers from social anxiety, even mildly. With the exception of psychopaths, everyone's self-esteem is vulnerable to some extent.
If social anxiety is an issue, taking a break from social media may be prudent and refreshing. A hiatus promises some psychological rest. An opportunity to get back to real life, investing time and efforts in real life relationships which are more transparent and often more rewarding.
Take Small Steps to Overcome It
If you have some social anxiety and wish to address it, start small. Start with some one-on-one interactions. Call up an old friend and find a time just to visit. You will feel more comfort and familiarity with this person. This will give you a boost as real-life interaction with others actually impacts our brain function by dispensing more oxytocin, the hormone that regulates pleasure.
Whenever possible try to push yourself to socially engage, even if it’s just a little bit. When supportive friends and family are not available, pick low risk one-on-one interactions for practice.
Good options are merchant engagements: the coffee shop barista, your doctor, the local librarian. These people are paid to help you and should be kind and supportive. A quick chat while getting your coffee can lift your spirits and may linger well after the transaction is over.
All the while as you practice these small social interactions, remind yourself constantly of your high self-worth. Find your mantra that reflects what’s best about you and tell it to yourself daily. Remember, the reinforced message sticks. Make sure it’s a good one.
Lastly, if social anxiety is truly debilitating, it may be time to seek out professional help. The good news is that it’s a fully treatable condition. Most successful programs focus on active behavioral group therapy (ironically) to provide a safe place to practice and both give and receive social support.
Here are some resources that may be a good starting point.
Overcoming Social Anxiety: Step by Step A structured therapy series created by Social Anxiety Institute
Social Anxiety Association Links to worldwide Social Anxiety support groups.
Take some time to assess your feelings of social anxiety. Rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 with one be non-existent and ten being extreme. Based on your evaluation decide on a course of action. Do you just need to reframe your thinking and spend more time with some trusted friends? Or do you need to get more formal and structured help?
If you have ever felt social anxiety, what has helped you overcome the feelings? We’d all appreciate your ideas in the comments below.