We’ve all been there—dreading or even intentionally avoiding social situations because we’re worried about rejection or embarrassing ourselves.
Maybe we choose to skip out on a work happy hour because our supervisor will be there and we feel intimidated. Perhaps we turn down a party invitation because we won’t know any of the guests. These choices aren’t inherently problematic; in fact, it’s normal to feel nervous about or even opt out of certain social situations.
But sometimes, our anxieties about social interactions start to interfere with our everyday lives, becoming excessive, defying logic, and even causing physiological symptoms, such as rapid heart rate, sweating, excessive blushing, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath. Have you ever felt so worried about rejection that even the thought of asking someone how their day was going filled you with dread? Has getting ready for a party or being in a room with unfamiliar faces made you sick to your stomach?
If these situations sound familiar to you, you may be dealing with social anxiety.
As it turns out, social anxiety—the intense fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social situation—is extremely common, affecting roughly 15 millions adults in the United States. It can influence the quality of our lives in numerous ways. For example, we might lose professional opportunities if we’re too nervous to attend work gatherings or make conversation in the hall. Social anxiety can hinder us from making friends, dating, or doing other things that bring joy and meaning ot our lives.
Despite the profound impact social anxiety can have on our lives, many who live with it do not seek professional support. In fact, one survey reported that only about 50% of people with social anxiety seek treatment, and that’s after enduring an average of 15-20 years of symptoms.
There are a number of reasons why people with social anxiety don’t seek the help of a counselor, but two that appear particularly influential are the beliefs that a) we can handle social anxiety ourselves and b) social anxiety is not a disorder but a personality trait. We’ve probably all seen or heard of parents encouraging a “timid” child with few playmates to “just go and make friends.” We often refer to adults who are socially withdrawn as “loners, “introverts” or as preferring to “keep to themselves.”
Many people who appear introverted or reserved and do not suffer from social anxiety. They may like to be alone, but going out and interacting with a stranger won’t them cause intense feelings of fear.
In contrast, people with social anxiety experience intense fear of being around others. They also often feel shame around their feelings, and regard their discomfort with social situations as a personal flaw rather than a mental health condition. This self-judgment only compounds feelings of pain and isolation.
In recognizing and understanding social anxiety, we can work to fight its symptoms. Happily, we live in a time where people with social anxiety have options for treatment. Here are just a few:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and mind-body therapies provided by licensed clinicians are common, evidence-based treatment options. CBT, a form of talk therapy, teaches relaxation strategies, helps clients identify and change problematic thought patterns, and works to alter avoidance behaviors, like skipping social engagements, that perpetuate feelings of isolation and shame.
- Self-help techniques can also be effective in addressing the symptoms of social anxiety. Anxiety Canada recommends techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, calm breathing, and realistic thinking. You may also notice that certain activities, like calling a trusted friend or listening to a certain song, make you feel calmer during times of heightened anxiety. Friends and family can also be sources of helpful techniques for dealing with symptoms of social anxiety.
While self-help techniques do not address the underlying causes of our anxiety, their ability to relieve symptoms can be invaluable at times of acute distress.
- Talk with your primary care physician about your concerns. Doctors can rule out underlying medical reasons for symptoms, and may be able to advise you on options for medical management. Your doctor may also provide you with a referral to a qualified mental health provider.
Are you looking to learn more about social anxiety and its treatment? For a basic overview, we recommend checking out this page from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. You can also hear directly from people living with social anxiety (and, if you choose, share your own story) via the National Social Anxiety Center or one of these online forums.
Erin Ross, MS OTR/L is an occupational therapist and an aspiring science writer in DC. She believes in evidence-based practice, clear communication in healthcare, and diligent inclusion of the Oxford comma.