Everyone feels a little anxious from time to time. Starting a new job, moving to a new city, meeting new people – these kinds of situations can easily make a person feel unsure of themselves, or nervous about the possible outcomes. But for some people, this ordinary feeling of anxiety becomes so extreme that it can be almost paralyzing.
Social anxiety is an intense feeling of nervousness or stress brought on by social situations or even the thought of social situations, especially those involving unfamiliar people.
What is Social Anxiety?
One of the fastest ways to understand social anxiety is to figure out what it is NOT.
SOCIAL ANXIETY IS NOT:
Although introverts are sometimes socially anxious, most are not. An introvert is someone who finds social activities tiring, and who restores their energy by doing quiet, solitary activities like reading. But introverts can still be perfectly comfortable and enjoy themselves in social situations – just not for too long at a stretch.
- Excessive Shyness.
The difference between shyness and anxiety is complicated, because they can often co-exist and reinforce one another in a vicious cycle. However, shyness is an outward behavior of avoiding social contact, while social anxiety is an inward feeling of fear or tension.
Although trauma (especially in childhood) is one cause of social anxiety, not all socially anxious people have been traumatized. In fact, one of the leading causes of social anxiety is the so-called “impostor syndrome,” which is more common among people who have not experienced trauma. Sometimes, people receive so much love and support as children that they have a hard time dealing with the relative coldness of strangers, which can lead to social anxiety.
How Do I Know if I Have Social Anxiety?
One of the things that makes social anxiety so difficult to treat is that many people don’t realize they have it. They dismiss their symptoms as simple shyness or awkward ness. Worst of all, many anxious people blame themselves for their condition and take it as a reflection on their character. They’ll say things like, “Why am I so weak? Why can’t I just get up the courage to go be social?” If they have a few negative social interactions (which is natural for anyone), they’ll think, “No one likes me anyway, so why should I bother going out to socialize?”
Remember also that you may be an extremely social and gregarious person, and still suffer from social anxiety. A significant number of socially anxious people get their anxiety out by being overly friendly and outgoing. Deep down, though, they still feel intensely nervous in these situations.
Lastly, always bear in mind that everyone feels a certain amount of anxiety around meeting new people. Unfamiliar social situations can be very uncomfortable, and this in itself is not a symptom of social anxiety. The real test is: do my anxieties disrupt my daily activities? If social anxiety consistently prevents you from going about your daily life (for example, if it causes panic attacks at work, keeps you from sleeping at night, or negatively affects your personal relationships), then it may be time to seek help.
Many people with social anxiety will find themselves self-medicating. That means they use alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behaviors to drown out their feelings of anxiety. If someone in your life is dealing with social anxiety, please be on the lookout for such self-medicating behaviors, as they can quickly spiral out of control and become dangerous.
What Can I Do If I Have Social Anxiety?
The first thing to do is stop blaming yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you. Your condition is not a personality flaw or a moral weakness. It’s just a condition, and it can be treated through a number of different means:
- Mindfulness Practices.
Studies show that meditation, yoga, prayer, and other practices of mindfulness are extremely effective in treating social anxiety and a wide variety of other related conditions. These practices are all about centering yourself in the present moment so that you no longer worry obsessively over what might happen in the future. Light exercise, like jogging, may have a similar effect.
- Social Support Networks.
For many socially anxious people, anxiety prevents them from forming close friendships. But for others, the anxiety exists alongside a robust social support network. If you have close friends, try talking to them about your condition. It can be nerve-wracking (especially if you are already feeling anxious!), but a true friend will understand and support you. In fact, anxiety is a common enough condition that your friend may very well be a fellow sufferer.
If there is no adequate social support network in place, or if your social anxiety is particularly severe, you may want to look into formal therapy. Social anxiety is a very common condition, and any licensed therapist or counselor will be able to offer effective care. Although the traditional “talk therapy” is still widely practiced, recent studies suggest that the most effective treatment for social anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. CBT will involve in-depth discussions with your therapist about your anxiety and its possible underlying causes. In addition, the therapist will give you mental exercises that you can practice on a daily basis and gradually strengthen the psychological “muscles” that will help you finally overcome your anxiety.