“A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating.”
Does this sound all too familiar? Do you find yourself actively avoiding or even fearful of social situations? If this interpretation is an accurate depiction of how you’ve been feeling over the last few months, you may have social anxiety.
According to the latest numbers, you are not alone. More than seven percent of adult American’s have also had a period of social anxiety within the last year. It’s a pervasive diagnosis and often associated with other mental health issues.
We pulled the definition of social anxiety from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), or the DSM-5. While helpful as a diagnosis, you might find it a cold approach to a painful experience. After all, it doesn’t get into the dirty details of living with social anxiety. With that in mind, let’s paint a real picture of what it’s really like living with the disorder.
8 Symptoms of Social Anxiety
The fear, anxiety, stress, and loneliness you feel become physically apparent by an elevated heart rate, flushed face, sweaty palms – you know these well. But what does it really feel like?
1. You Always Have a Good Excuse Not to Go
No matter what the occasion, you can always find an excuse not to go. In the beginning, this might even be subconscious. From small gatherings to larger events, you never feel up to socializing with others. You won’t go, and you have a good excuse why not.
2. Missing Events on Purpose, Yet You Still Feel FOMO
Even when you decide not to attend an event, afterward you feel remorse about the decision. It’s a bizarre cycle of thoughts. On the one hand, you are fearful about heading out in public, while on the other, you feel lonely, and left out. You are constantly battling this confluence of emotions.
3. Difficulty Speaking Up During Conversation
When you do find yourself in casual conversation, you struggle to find your voice. Everyone talks around you, but you can’t find the courage to speak up. Even if they are asking you questions, you can only manage short answers, and can’t look anyone in the eyes.
4. Intense Fear of Speaking to People You Don’t Know
Friends and family are hard enough, but it seems terrifying to speak to strangers. Small talk? No way! That’s something to be avoided at all costs. Again, you might try to avoid small talk with strangers by not looking people in the eyes, or avoiding the situation altogether.
5. Crippling Fear of Becoming the Center of Attention
Part of the fear of socializing is becoming the center of attention. You fear that in a large group, all eyes will be on you. Won’t others judge you in some way? A public speech might trigger a panic attack; the fear is so intense.
6. Harsh Inner Dialogue
Much of your anxious inner dialogue is negative. You consistently play out future events and conversations, but only imagine others judging you. It’s an ongoing struggle to see positive points.
7. Inferiority Complex
You may feel that everyone else looks down on you, or doesn’t respect you. You feel inferior to everyone else in the room. You may even feel this way because you believe nobody else is as nervous as you are.
8. Avoid Dating (Or Issues in a Relationship)
If you are single, you plan on staying that way to avoid the nerves of first dates, and small talk. If you are in a relationship, the relationship struggles as you become increasingly introverted. While you might not be socially anxious around your partner, your anxiety affects you in many other ways. Eventually, they start to put a strain on everyone else in your life.
10 Expert Backed Tips to Beat It
1. Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness is a well-established way to become aware of your emotions. According to an article published by the Harvard Gazette, mindfulness is the “the idea of paying attention on purpose,” and there is evidence it can improve memory improvement, stress reduction, healthier diet, sleep improvement. There are many resources available about mindfulness but start with easy first steps. When feelings of anxiety bubble up, notice them and see them for what they are. Once you’ve noticed them, practice letting them pass.
2. Reappraise Your Fear
Reappraising the way you approach a situation can challenge the way you feel about it. Instead of saying, “I am anxious to go to the party,” tell yourself you are excited. At the next event, reappraise it as a game. How many people can you talk to? How many questions can you ask? Reappraising can help the brain learn new pathways, habits, and skills.
3. What is the Worst That Could Happen?
Social anxiety is associated with an intense spiral downward about future situations. You replay future conversations again and again. You can’t stop spiraling downwards into negative emotions.
Usually, as a socially anxious person, you know these fears are irrational – but by the time you end up at the bottom of the spiral, it’s hard to recognize this. Before you spiral, ask yourself, “What is the worst that can happen?” Once you are there, you’ll likely feel better, because you know it’s so wild, it will never come to fruition.
4. Social Prescription
The public health sector in the United Kingdom has adopted a new kind of prescription, one called ‘social prescription.‘ It doesn’t involve pills or medicines, though. Instead, it includes activities, wellbeing exercises, and other nonclinical activities.
Make your own social prescription for social anxiety. This could mean getting outside in nature for 30 minutes a day, taking an art workshop, or joining yoga. Prescribe yourself wellbeing for mind, body, and soul.
5. Speak to a Counselor
In a study done by Phillipe Goldin out of Stanford University, he demonstrates the benefits of cognitive therapy for people with social anxiety. In the study, he used brain imaging to map the neural responses of participants as they read an autobiographical story out loud about a social situation.
As negative reactions came up, researchers asked participants to stop and reevaluate their feelings. As participants underwent cognitive behavioral therapy, Goldin and his team witnessed much better responses. According to Goldin, “The study further reveals that counseling is effective in changing the behavior of the brain, helping people respond to and reframe negative emotions more quickly.”
6. Be Kind to Yourself
Many of the same approaches to treating mental health issues, like depression and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) overlap with those for social anxiety.
In the book The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, author Alex Korb encourages readers to be kind during the process of healing. He says, “Be as patient and kind with yourself as you would be with a cute little puppy that you’re trying to house-train. Stressing the puppy out will only make it pee on the floor.”
7. Practice With One or Two Close Relationships
Despite what you might assume, you can learn social skills, including small talk and conversations. Grab a few of your closest friends or family members, and practice asking questions. Set goals for the conversation, like sharing two stories, or asking about two topics that come up. Use these safe friendships as a stepping stool to more significant social situations.
8. Create Safe Spaces
It’s natural for even the most social of the butterflies to feel exhausted after big events, or after hours of intense socializing. Everyone needs downtime. Create a safe space for yourself when you are in social situations. This gives you an exit when you need it, and a place to collect your thoughts. For example, a bathroom stall makes a great escape.
9. Get Outside
Ever heard of forest bathing or shinrin-yoku? This is the practice of going out into nature and experiencing a peaceful natural environment with all five senses. According to a report in The Guardian, science backs the health benefits.
So much so that the Japanese government began incorporating it into public policy. As per the report, “new studies showed that such activity could reduce blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and improve concentration and memory. A chemical released by trees and plants, called phytoncides, was found to boost the immune system.
10. Create a Hierarchy of Fears
There is a long history of using exposure therapy for social anxiety, including exciting new options using virtual reality. Start with creating a list of all the social situations which you fear, then place them in hierarchical order from least fearful to most. Target the lower ones first. Slowly expose yourself to these events, places, and people, as self-prescribed exposure therapy. Set small goals and practice them. Move up as it gets easier.
Breaking through the cycles of fear and spirals of negative thoughts is not easy, and certainly doesn’t happen overnight. Likely you’ll rely on many different tools, tips, and therapies to overcome it. Take little steps, forgive yourself for when you don’t reach goals as quickly as you wanted, and take every day for what it is.