Do you feel tense or awkward in social situations? Do you worry about what strangers think of you when walking down the street? Are these thoughts and feelings causing you to avoid social situations altogether? If so, you might be suffering from the symptoms of social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia).
Social anxiety disorder is an irrational fear of being judged negatively by other people. A fear that others might think we are weak, anxious or stupid, and that they’ll reject us as a result. Social phobia affects millions of people around the world, and in extreme cases can cause people to avoid social contact altogether. This in turn leads to a vicious cycle of painful experiences and avoidance, and it can even lead to substance abuse and depression.
Do I suffer from social anxiety or am I just shy?
Many people are naturally introverts and reserved when around people they don’t know. After all, we can’t all be expected to be able to walk into rooms filled with strangers with confidence, and it’s natural to be concerned about what other people think of us.
The difference between being shy and suffering from social phobia is that shyness is merely a momentary sense of unease or not feeling relaxed. Social phobia, on the other hand, has an array of uncomfortable physical and mental symptoms that make people want to avoid social situations.
What situations cause social anxiety symptoms?
There’s a wide array of situations that can cause people with social anxiety disorder to feel nervous and afraid unnecessarily. This includes eating in public, going to a public restroom, public speaking, catching public transport and walking down the street. Essentially, any situation where you are in front of people you don’t know and think you’re being judged can trigger the irrational symptoms of social anxiety disorder.
The type and severity of social anxiety symptoms can vary dramatically between different sufferers. It can be mild as a slightly heightened sense of alertness and awareness of people around you to a rapid heartbeat, blushing, shortness of breath, muscle tension and clammy hands. In severe cases it can result in a full blown panic attack. So if you suffer from social anxiety the symptoms can be very distressing and it’s no wonder so many sufferers choose to avoid social situations rather than endure the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings they trigger.
What causes the symptoms of social anxiety?
There are many theories on what causes people to develop social anxiety symptoms. This includes genetics, if there is a history of anxiety in the family, home environment and experiences growing up as a child. Currently the most pervasive theory is that social anxiety occurs as a result of a negative belief system developed as a child.
For example, if you are bullied at school during your formative childhood or teenage years then this can cause to develop the belief system that other people are cruel, vindictive and a constant threat. This in turn causes your biological ‘fight or flight’ defence mechanism to trigger in response to the perceived threat of other people.
The symptoms of social anxiety, such as the quickening of the heart, raised blood pressure and a heightened sense of awareness, are those of our fight or flight mechanism. This is a mechanism that has been part of our natural genetic makeup for thousands, if not millions, of years. The changes in our bodies it triggers were necessary to help us detect and escape threats. So if you have developed a negative belief system towards other people, it can be triggered in social situations which we perceive to be threatening.
How can I reduce social anxiety symptoms?
The symptoms of social anxiety disorder are driven by irrational and unhelpful thought processes. Consequently, in order to reduce the symptoms you need to change the thoughts that are driving them. This means rewiring your brain so that you no longer perceive other people and social situations as threatening.
Thankfully, a lot of research has been conducted into social phobia over the last few decades and methods of treatment developed. In mild cases, overcoming social anxiety disorder can be as simple as making some lifestyle changes, such as improving your diet, becoming more active and engaging in hobbies that provide healthy social interactions with other people. In more serious cases, where sufferers are avoiding social situations altogether, someone with social phobia may require a combination of medication, to reduce the physical symptoms, and psychotherapy to change the negative thought processes driving their anxiety.
Cognitive behavioural therapy has been very beneficial for many people suffering from social anxiety symptoms. This form of psychotherapy provides a goal driven strategy that trains sufferers to first recognise inaccurate, unhelpful thoughts and then to replace them with more objective, healthy ways of thinking. Over time the replacement thoughts become an automatic response to social situations, leading to a reduction in the symptoms of social anxiety.
Where to get help
The fact is that social anxiety is a medically diagnosable and treatable condition. Many thousands of people have learned how to change the unhelpful thoughts and feelings driving their anxiety so they can live a more fulfilling life free from the fear of strangers.
The internet is filled with forums and websites providing advice and support on how to overcome social anxiety symptoms. However, if social phobia is causing you to avoid social situations and damaging your sense of fulfilment and enjoyment in life, then you should consult a doctor or mental health professional for advice and support on how to overcome the unhelpful thoughts and feelings of social anxiety for good.