It is not uncommon or unhealthy for individuals to want alone time. In fact, prioritizing time for self-care and to recharge can be an indicator of boundaries that honor one’s unique needs. However, certain forms of isolation can find their roots in social anxiety, low self-esteem, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Understanding social anxiety is important for those who live with it, their loved ones, coworkers, and friends. As an estimated 12.1% of U.S. adults experience it in their lifetime, increased awareness, compassion and tools benefit all of us.
Introversion or Social Anxiety?
Distinct symptoms set social anxiety apart from introversion or common nerves that accompany certain social gatherings. Job interviews, first dates, or family gatherings are common sources for many individuals.
For individuals living with it, making eye contact in conversation, going to work or school, using public bathrooms, or meeting friends of their friends can cause significant levels of anxiety, fear, or avoidance.
Introversion differs from social anxiety in that introverted individuals find fulfillment in their alone time. Generally, if they desire human connection, they are able to enter and engage in interactions that provide them with it.
Alternatively “people with social anxiety may think there is something wrong with them because of how overwhelmed they are by social situations,” says Viva clinician Carlee Myers. “They crave connection but lack the resources to facilitate it.”
Roots of Social Anxiety
Social trauma, which stems from an inciting incident of social humiliation or rejection is strongly correlated with social anxiety. Additionally, individuals who have experienced childhood abandonment or neglect, family conflict, divorce, physical, sexual or domestic abuse show higher levels of social anxiety.
Social anxiety is understood as a complex trauma. “Much trauma involves a threat to life, but complex PTSD does not necessarily. It is the developmental harm from circumstances in childhood, or occurs as a result of repeated, hurtful, painful events,” says Myers.
The nuanced nature of this struggle can cause those living with it to feel misunderstood. For them, a barrier exists between how they want to experience the world and how they do. Thankfully, tools do exist to help them close the disconnect and have more satisfying connections – within themselves and with others.
Tools for Coping
We offer these long-term and short-term tools for you and your loved ones:
- Implement a mindfulness or meditation practice. Deep breathing, walks in nature, and meditation are effective coping skills for alleviating anxiety.
- Communicate acceptance to a loved one who struggles with social anxiety. Let them know that even if you do not understand their struggle, you are willing to learn and to be present with them in difficult moments.
- Find a therapist who can practice Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). “Social anxiety creates a negative feedback loop that holds individuals in negative core beliefs about how they think others are viewing them,” shares Carlee. “EMDR is a useful tool for re-visiting and re-wiring those core beliefs.”
- Be an ally. Let your loved ones know you are proud of them when they choose to challenge their fear and are open to new experiences. Let them know you’re proud of them when they don’t feel able to do this also. Learn more about being an ally here.
Interested in learning more about living with and living alongside those with social anxiety? Contact us at email@example.com to learn more. In addition, you can find a wealth of free resources for support via the Resilient Brain Project.
Carlee Myers is a clinician at The Viva Center in Washington, D.C. She uses a trauma-informed approach, as well as EMDR and dialectical behavioral therapy with her clients to facilitate their healing and empowerment.