We all feel anxious in social settings from time to time, feeling nervous before an interview, or uncomfortable in new surroundings. Occasional anxiety is natural and expected. But for many people, some types of social contact cause them to feel self-conscious, highly anxious, or panicked. These are symptoms of social anxiety.
While shyness and social anxiety may appear similar to the casual observer, they are not the same. Many people living with social anxiety are not shy. The naturally shy do not feel the negative emotions that accompany social anxiety. Shyness is a personality trait. Social anxiety is a common, treatable, mental health condition.
Living with Social Anxiety
While some living with social anxiety do not feel like their condition holds them back, others avoid situations that trigger their discomfort. Those living with social anxiety often experience physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, and a rapid heart rate.
Social anxiety typically presents itself in anticipation of social interaction, during a social encounter, or after social contact. While social anxiety can strike at any time, it typically starts during youth or adolescence. Social anxiety is suspected if symptoms persist for six months or longer.
Social Anxiety is a Common Anxiety Disorder
If you experience symptoms of social anxiety, you are not alone. Social anxiety disorder affects nearly 15 million Americans and is the second most often diagnosed anxiety disorder. Sadly, only five percent of those living with social anxiety seek treatment, even though social anxiety is highly treatable.
Treatment for social anxiety typically involves anxiety counseling, therapy, medication, or a combination of treatment methods. There is no one method of treatment that works for every person living with this disorder. If you are living with social anxiety, you can learn to overcome its effects.
Overcoming Anxiety with Muscle Relaxation and Calm Breathing
The physical symptoms of anxiety are triggered by your autonomic nervous system. Your muscles tense, your breathing gets faster, and your heart rate increases in preparation to run away or fight. This autonomic response was once necessary for the survival of our species.
When you consciously relax your muscles and calm your breathing, the alarm system in your brain is deactivated. When you feel anxious, focus on relaxing your muscles and breathing through your nose, breathing in and out naturally. Even if your anxiety persists, the severity should lessen.
Examine and Revise Your Negative Thought Processes
It is not uncommon for those with social anxiety to have a negative internal dialog about social situations. Your thought patterns, the script you have written for yourself, can be revised. The first step in the process is to identify your counterproductive thought patterns. Just a few examples of internal dialog in need of revision include:
- “I will not know what I should say.”
- “I will say or do something I regret.”
- “Others will notice that I am feeling anxious.”
- “I will likely say or do something foolish.”
- “Others will think I am boring or dull.”
- “I am not as smart, interesting, or attractive as other people.”
To begin redirecting your negative thought processes, write down your negative thoughts. Then evaluate your list, writing down a more realistic statement below your original view, such as “Realistically, most people are too involved in their own social experiences to notice if I appear anxious.”
Then ask yourself for evidence in support of your generalizations. The specifics. For example; how many times did you actually say something you regretted? Write your facts as they happened, then find the evidence that contradicts your generalized statement, the times you held conversations without saying anything you regret.
Test Your Perception of Truth
Often, it is the anticipation, rather than the event itself, that feeds anxiety. It may be beneficial to examine the truthfulness of your belief system to understand the reality of your fears.
For example, if you believe you would have difficulty coping with the aftermath of making a foolish statement, test your theory by experimenting with intentionally making a foolish statement. You will likely learn that your feared action is less anxiety provoking than you anticipate. Some additional social experiments to try include:
- Spilling a drink on purpose
- Purposely mispronouncing a word
- Sending an email with a typographical error
- Pretending to lose a thought mid-sentence
- Letting your hand shake as you hold a drink
- Asking an obvious question
- Intentionally dropping an object or knocking something over
Keep in mind that you control your social experimentation. Plan your event. Make a note of the facts of your situation, without the assumption that anyone thinks anything negatively of you in the process.
Confront the Cause of Your Fears
While living with social anxiety, it is beneficial to slowly face your fears. Avoiding stressful situations can escalate your worries. To begin facing your fears consider the following:
- Write a list of anxiety-provoking activities, such as initiating a conversation or eating in public
- Order your list from lowest to highest anticipated anxiety level
- Force yourself to engage in the first activity on your list
- Once you force the experience, do the same action again, then again
- When you start feeling less anxious, move to the next item on your list
Practice Often with Consistency
It’s important to remember that social skills are typically learned and practiced. Most people with social anxiety have plenty of social skills but lack the confidence to use them. By identifying the social situations that cause you distress, replacing your negative thought patterns with realistic facts, and gradually facing the situations that cause anxiety, you will gain experience and confidence in overcoming your anxious feelings.
If you are having difficulty with social anxiety, you may want to consider consulting a mental health professional. In Clark County, Washington, contact Real Life Counseling. A therapist or counselor will help you learn practical techniques to manage your social anxiety. Learning effective coping skills will minimize the effects of social anxiety on your health and happiness.