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The Truth about Social Anxiety

Girl alone in dark roomWhen someone is living with Social Anxiety, the experience can be very difficult and full of conflict. Most people with social anxiety have a strong desire to connect with others. The problem is, their anxiety holds them back from situations where anxiety might peak.

Someone who is socially anxious does not want the way they think, feel, and act to be impacted by their disorder. The problem is, they believe that the only way to avoid potentially painful or uncomfortable experiences is to avoid social gatherings. This results in someone reluctantly declining opportunities or not being able to fully participate in them.

This person is someone who does really want to go out with friends, on dates, or to a networking event. However the overwhelming experience of social anxiety will cause them to leave early (or not go at all) or to overthink those social bonds.

In the end, it can feel pretty hopeless that those much desired personal relationships (friendship, romantic, professional) will ever happen.

THE NEED FOR CONNECTION

What makes Social Anxiety (also known as Social Phobia) so difficult is that it interferes with the very basic human need for connection. This can be with family, friends, a significant other, coworkers, or community. Evolution has taught us that people are safer when they are connected with others.

This does not mean that you always HAVE to be around others, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being introverted and savoring alone time. But people have an innate drive to connect with others. This internal drive helped our ancestors survive in risky situations and has stayed with us to this day.

STANDING OUT VS. BEING AN OUTSIDER

Another normal human instinct is to want to be an individual and different from others in a socially desirable way. Certain personality traits are highly valued in our society, such as being talented, attractive, funny, athletic, or generous.

But if you have social anxiety, you may instead be worried about anything that might make you stand out in a bad way:

  • Not knowing the right thing to say or how to keep up your part of a conversation.
  • Not being likable enough.
  • Others might notice how uncomfortable or awkward you are at times.
  • You unintentionally trigger someone’s disgust with a smell, appearance, or action.
  • You might not be as smart or worldly as those around you.
  • Your life doesn’t measure up to what it appears others may have.
  • While interacting with others, something will happen that embarrasses you or makes you a target for ridicule.

In an effort to avoid these situations, you may find yourself avoiding situations where they could occur. The result is a life spent in a very small comfort zone, while still having a strong yearning to connect with others.

LIVING LIFE INSIDE YOUR HEAD

What you want most... is what your brain and body don’t seem to want to let you accomplish - relationships!

For many people with social anxiety, a significant amount of time and energy is spent thinking about, and usually dreading, upcoming social situations. You might be torn as to whether you really want to go or not, with worrying that only intensifies as you get closer to the date.

Many people will talk themselves out of going as the event grows closer. The anxiety lessens for a short time, but is immediately replaced by feelings of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and increased loneliness.

When you do put yourself in a social situation, you are preoccupied with worry. Will people notice how nervous you are? Will something happen that ends with you completely humiliated or rejected? Will you be judged?

Social anxiety doesn’t just stop with your thoughts. The physical reactions of panic may creep up on you, and can come in any of these forms:

  • Racing heart
  • Nausea or butterflies in your stomach
  • Shaking or trembling hands or legs
  • Sweating/feeling hot
  • Blushing
  • Difficulty catching your breath
  • Feeling tightness in your chest
  • Trouble speaking
  • Feeling dizzy or so lightheaded you might faint.

And, of course, THEN what will people think!?!

Social anxiety can be an intense experience. Intense enough that you are so focused on your own thoughts, worries, and physical sensations that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to actually be around others. There is a never ending battle between the desire to be in social situations and the overwhelming urge to avoid them.

UNHEALTHY WAYS OF COPING WITH SOCIAL ANXIETY

In addition to completely avoiding many difficult social situations, people may depend on strategies as the only way to get through them. Unfortunately, these can result in making the social anxiety even stronger. Things like:

  • Remaining very quiet or avoiding conversation entirely. Seemingly to prevent the possibility of saying anything that could be judged as stupid, weird, or humiliating.
  • Being excessively nice or agreeable towards others, which unintentionally makes someone come off as fake or deceptive. Which can be qualities that others view negatively and distance themselves from.
  • Abusing alcohol, marijuana, or another substance as “the only way to get through it.”
  • Latching onto a friend or someone as a “safe person,” who must always be close by in social situations.
  • Maintaining mostly online connections, where there is the perception of more control and someone’s words and images can be very carefully curated.

These strategies can make someone feel as if they are overcoming their social anxiety. The truth is they serve as a crutch that prevent truly desired outcomes from occurring. Deep and meaningful connections are not made. Confidence in your own ability to successfully navigate social situations is not growing. You miss out on the opportunity to learn that your genuine self is more than good enough.

THE PROBLEM OF AVOIDANCE

Connecting with others in an authentic and valued way is hard for a lot of people. Especially when social anxiety prevents someone from being in social situations because of intense fear.

Social anxiety can cause you to overthink and take desperate actions to avoid or get through social situations with severe distress. It interferes with your ability to learn how to handle difficult interactions and read and react appropriately to verbal and non-verbal social cues. Most of all it inhibits you from building self-confidence that can benefit you in all areas of your life. All the while, stopping you from satisfying the very basic human needs of belonging, bonding with others, and building important lifelong relationships.

MY APPROACH TO TREATING SOCIAL ANXIETY

The techniques and skills of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are used to help people with social anxiety learn how to handle the intense worries, physical reactions, and urges to avoid that can severely impact someone’s life. While in many situations, a level of nervousness or anxiety is to be expected (e.g. a first date, job interview, meeting your significant other’s family for the first time, talking to a stranger). We will work together to help you become more comfortable in situations where your level of anxiety is excessive or overwhelming.

Social anxiety treatment can help you develop skills for effectively coping with thoughts associated with social anxiety. Some of the misperceptions and troubling beliefs you will exchange for healthier strategies or attitudes may include:

  • Assessing the chances of something going bad in a social situation.
  • What could result from a negative judgment or awkward interaction.
  • What the entire experience of social anxiety really means.
  • The Spotlight Effect (overestimation of what people actually notice and how much time and energy they spend doing it.)
  • The confidence level needed to try something new or uncomfortable.
  • Your tendency to negatively compare yourself to others on highly-specific qualities.
  • How someone may appear confident and carefree on the outside, but are experiencing something very different (and normal) on the inside.

Instead of fully buying into the “conclusions” that social anxiety provides, you will begin to cultivate a more accurate and flexible mindset. Learning how to prioritize your values, goals, and why you want to be in a social situation over your social anxiety can be a shift that is very difficult. However, it is highly beneficial and a very important element of overcoming your fear.

Techniques for handling the physical aspects of social anxiety will be demonstrated as well. These not only include various relaxation strategies, but methods for changing how you think, feel, and react to the panic symptoms that can emerge.

Once you learn these skills and develop the core strategies for effectively dealing with social anxiety, we will apply them in situations where you have struggled. The easiest scenarios are addressed first, and we work our way up towards the more difficult social settings at a pace and manner that is comfortable for you.

The end results we will aspire to, include:

  • Flexibility.
  • Confidence.
  • Adaptability.
  • Resilience.
  • Greater connection to what is truly important to you.
  • More accurate perspectives on social situations and people.
  • The openness to be a part of and grow from the social world around you.

COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT SOCIAL ANXIETY

There are many people out there who are shy or take significant time to warm up to new people or new environments. As with many emotional and behavioral issues, it is important to look at someone’s level of impairment over time. If an individual is shy or “slow to warm,” but eventually becomes comfortable and able to interact well with others, this is likely not a diagnosable issue.

If the emotional distress does not lessen (or intensifies, as happens often) or if the individual does not interact with others successfully for someone that age and situation, then social anxiety therapy may be considered.

They are considered separate disorders, but there is tremendous overlap between the two. It has been estimated that 90 percent of children with Selective Mutism also qualify for Social Anxiety.

You could consider Selective Mutism to be a presentation of Social Anxiety. The specific behavior affected is communication (not just verbal, as it can also affect someone’s written or non-verbal communication) and it occurs only in highly specific settings (very often at school). When the child is comfortable and secure, he or she speaks without any difficulty and you would never know there was such struggle.

Selective Mutism may present as complete silence, a barely-audible whisper, pointing only, expressionless face, rigid body posture, social isolation (except for perhaps a sibling or 1-2 friends who often speak for the child), or physical movements only when necessary.

When Selective Mutism occurs in a school, getting the right treatment for a child can often be difficult. If the child is somewhat-successful academically, the school might minimize the need for intervention. It could also be misunderstood as a speech/language deficit and be treated with speech therapy alone, rather than addressing the underlying emotional and behavioral components.

A smaller class size can be provided, but often does not help. It cannot only be treated at home or in a therapist’s office, as it does require school participation. The child, parents, school staff, and treating therapist all need to work together to help the child overcome his or her experience of intense fear at school.

A fear of public speaking probably doesn’t mean that you have social anxiety. However, it definitely means you are in the majority of people when it comes to this task. It has been estimated that up to 75 percent of people have a public speaking phobia. Whereas, just 10 percent of people love the experience of talking in front of a large group of people.

If you are someone who is afraid of public speaking, but it is necessary for work, a hobby, or another important goal, there are skills and therapeutic techniques that can help.

For many children, teens, and young adults, most socialization is done through cell phones or some online platform (including during video games). Let’s face it, this is the world in which they grew up and so it seems very normal to them.

Any deficits noticed during in-person interactions can potentially be a result of a lack of practice with a less-preferred option for communicating. However, if the idea of engaging in a face-to-face interaction, where they need to maintain a conversation raises their distress above a level that would be expected, then perhaps the emotions behind it should be explored.

A FINAL WORD ON SOCIAL ANXIETY

Social anxiety can prevent someone from being able to develop the meaningful connections with others that they so desire. There are skills and techniques that can help people overcome their anxiety to become a full participant in their social world and all the opportunities that can come with it.

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