The Truth about Social Anxiety
When 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
- 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:
- 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
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.