Social Anxiety

Anxiety and fear are normal feelings that we all experience from time to time, and evolved to be helpful in responding to threats or danger. However, we can sometimes experience anxiety or fear to a degree that is unwarranted by a specific situation, or in situations where in fact the threat is quite minimal, so that our ability to function in that situation is impaired. Social anxiety is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with others, of situations where we may be judged or evaluated by others. While most people have some degree of anxiety in some social situations, social anxiety prevents people from being able to do things they want or need to do.

Examples of situations causing distress to someone experiencing social anxiety include:

  • Speaking in public
  • Performing in public
  • Eating in public
  • Meeting new people
  • Expressing a personal opinion
  • Initiating or joining social activities
  • Expressing displeasure in public, such as returning an item to a store
  • Speaking on the telephone
  • Making eye contact

Social anxiety can impact relationships, making it hard to develop and continue healthy connections with others or to simply interact in casual ways in public settings. Work or school performance may be adversely impacted as well. Any activity involving contact with others can be impacted, making day-to-day living quite uncomfortable and difficult for those experiencing significant symptoms of social anxiety.

Social anxiety involves physical feelings, anxious thoughts, and associated behaviors.

Some examples of physical feelings associated with social anxiety include:

  • Racing or pounding heart
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Trouble swallowing or feeling as if one is choking
  • Blushing, flushes or chills
  • Nausea, diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Feeling unreal or detached
  • Dry mouth

Some examples of anxious beliefs associated with social anxiety include:

  • It is necessary that everyone likes me
  • If I speak in public, I will look like a fool
  • It is terrible if I make a mistake, others won’t like me
  • I should never let others know I am anxious, it is a sign of weakness
  • I must only speak in public if I can do so perfectly and be totally accepted
  • Anxiety will make me screw up and others will judge me harshly

Behavior connected with social anxiety is most commonly avoiding uncomfortable situations, or using other behaviors to reduce the anxiety quickly. For instance, someone who is uncomfortable going to a social gathering where they don’t know everyone may drink to numb their anxiety. Someone who is uncomfortable eating in public may eat alone in their room most of the time.

Some people who struggle with social anxiety were teased, bullied, or criticized as a child, saw others who were treated in this way, or were taught early on that making a good impression and maintaining an attractive or highly competent image is important. There are likely multiple factors that contribute to the development of social anxiety at a level that interrupts day to day functioning. However, it is quite possible to overcome the negative impact of social anxiety.

To minimize social anxiety, it is useful to be well prepared for any public presentation, such as speaking in class, to practice repeatedly in a situation as close as possible to the performance situation, and to imagine performing in a successful way. If social anxiety becomes regularly disruptive to social, academic, or work functioning, it may be time to seek counseling. Counseling for social anxiety involves help with social and communication skills, learning to challenge anxiety producing thoughts and replace them with more reasonable thoughts, and help to gradually approach feared social settings in a way to overcome fear.