We have all felt shy or under confident in meetings or at social gatherings. Maybe we have dreaded walking into a room full of strangers or just experienced an uncomfortable feeling of nervousness. We all differ in how reserved or outgoing we are and what kind of situation or people we find most difficult to deal with.
Social anxiety is much more than this as it can stop us from enjoying things we take for granted, and for some people it even restricts their use of the phone or leaving the house.
Social anxiety disorder is a persistent and overwhelming fear or anxiety about social situations where we may become embarrassed. This fear or anxiety is way out of proportion to the actual threat posed at that point. We tend to be self-conscious and worried about whether others might be judging us. We will think and dissect past incidents and worry about what we did, who saw us and what that means to everyone else.
This can lead to panic attacks, a fear of shame or humiliation which is too great to deal with or frustration, loneliness and a low mood. All of this stops us from going out or isolates us from support which makes us criticize ourselves even more. This results in our self-esteem dropping and a vicious circle is created.
We develop safety behaviours, such as trying not be noticed, staying in the background, being quiet and not contributing, or maybe drinking to calm ourselves and not making eye contact with anyone else. All of this is stopping us from finding out how we could cope if we faced our fears, as it keeps us distant and we appear stand-offish or look like we are not making an effort.
But, ironically most of us know our social anxiety is irrational, and is not based on fact or experience but we simply cannot make it go away.
All of this distracts us and makes us unable to concentrate, avoid eye contact which makes us look like we are not concentrating or connecting with people. We remain silent and do not contribute. We miss appointments and events that affect our well-being and, if we do speak, we talk excessively to cover up our anxiety.
Physically we are affected by symptoms such as shaking & tremors, dry mouth & closed throat, racing heart, panic attacks, headache, grinding teeth, nervous stomach or even IBS and uncontrollable crying.
All of this makes us really focus on ourselves and our perceived thoughts. We judge ourselves harshly if we are shaking or there is any sign of our anxiety. This of course, makes everything worse, as we become self-conscious, we don’t focus on others around us and eventually we feel we are no good in social situations, thus lowering our self-esteem and increasing our fear.
So what can cause social anxiety? Anything at all, but some key examples are eating in front of others, going to parties, starting a conversation, contributing to a meeting or in a classroom, shopping, talking to authority figures, exercising or simply leaving the house.
There is not a great deal of research into the causes of social anxiety but it is often started by some form of negative experience like abuse, conflict or bullying.
Anxiety can run in families but it’s not thought to be genetic but learnt from parents as a way to deal with situations.
As children we can also develop anxiety if we were brought up in an over protective way or in a very controlled environment. If, as a child, we were shy and under-confident we are at a higher chance of developing social anxiety too. Our brain may play a part too as the amygdala controls the fear response and if this is overactive we may have a heightened fear response, causing increased anxiety. Sadly if we have something about our appearance that draws attention to us, like stuttering or a disfigurement, we again have a higher chance of developing social anxiety.
We often find coping mechanisms for our social anxiety that are destructive, such as alcohol, drugs, and left untreated social anxiety can lead to self-harm or suicide.
There are some things that we can do to help ourselves; and we need to recognise unhelpful or even destructive thoughts –
- Mind reading –assuming we know what others are thinking about us and that its negative
- What if… thinking or obsessing about what if’s ‘what if I make an idiot of myself?’ ‘What if I can think of anything to say?’
- Labels – believing only negative things about ourselves – ‘I am so dull, ‘I am going to be a flop in this interview’
- It’s my fault – taking to heart or personally situations that are out of our control e.g. if our friends are quiet today it’s something we have done
- Crystal ball – predicting the future especially about all the things that could go wrong before we get to the event/interview etc.
We can learn methods to challenge these thoughts. Firstly we need ask ourselves
- Is there evidence that contradicts the thought?
- Can we identify what kind of thought it is from the list above?
- What are the benefits from thinking like this and what is the cost to us?
- Is this my voice saying this or is it something we heard in the past that has become our thought now?
- Will it matter in 6 months’ time?
- What would those people who care about us say about our thoughts right now?
Using these helps us to come up with a more realistic thought process – e.g. ‘I met my brother’s new girlfriend last week and it went ok, we did not run out of things to say. I f I am a bit quiet meeting the new guy at work its ok. It’s not the end of the world’
Keeping a thought diary for at least a month often helps us to find our triggers, listing the situation, the thoughts and emotions and then afterwards looking at the reality of our thoughts and coming up with new balanced thoughts, which gives us a way of practicing and reforming our thought process.
When we get in to anxiety making social situations there are a few things we can do there and then:
- Spend less time focusing on physical sensations
- Remember we may be anxious but we can still be performing or appearing ok
- Concentrate on the conversations around us
- Remember we do not have to fill the silences in conversations , other people can do this too
- We do not have to perform perfectly or be the centre of attention, we can just be there and join in and be ok
- We should stop replaying what was said or who did what in our heads and just be present in the moment
Of course, this can be difficult and sometimes we need help to challenge our thoughts, our safety behaviours and our fears. CBT is a great place to start as it will help you challenge your thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Also, look for exposure therapy too as this helps us go out and face our fears one step at a time.
http://www.social-anxiety.org.uk/ has useful information on social anxiety.
No Panic – Helpline 0844 967 4848
Elaine Bond Counselling – 07769 152 951