What the Heck is Social Anxiety?

When I think about social anxiety, I imagine the student that is afraid to engage in any extracurricular activities in school, the adult that is afraid to speak up at work during a team meeting, the person that doesn’t leave home much to avoid crowds, or the kid that cries when it is time to go to school. On their own, these situations do not appear to be particularly restrictive, but what happens when they interfere with a person’s day-to-day functioning?

For example, a student who is afraid to participate in any extracurricular activities realizes that they have missed out on opportunities to make friends by not participating in these activities, and as a result, they are frequently lonely. This can eventually lead to this student experiencing a depressed mood in addition to the anxiety they already have. Depression causes the student to withdraw socially as well, and in order to avoid further discomfort, this student decides to discontinue attendance at school. This is how social anxiety develops. People begin to limit their day-to-day functioning in an effort to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety.

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety, also called social phobia, is excessive fear and avoidance of being socially embarrassed, humiliated, or rejected. In order to be diagnosed with social anxiety, you must have displayed the symptoms for at least 6 months. The feelings and emotional symptoms are:

  • Excessive Avoiding Fearful Situations
  • Hypersensitive to Negative Evaluations
  • Anxiety
  • Embarrassment, Shame, or Humiliation
  • Loneliness
  • Acting or Feeling Foolish
  • Feeling Panicky or Having a Panic Attack
  • Frustration or Anger
  • Fatigue

Here is a list of some physical and cognitive symptoms:

  • Stomach Ache
  • Rapid Heart Beat
  • Excessive Sweating
  • Blushing
  • Nausea
  • Dry Mouth or Throat
  • Trembling
  • Trouble Swallowing
  • Muscle Twitches
  • Headache
  • Grinding Teeth
  • Mind Goes Blank
  • Stumbling Over Words
  • Racing Thoughts
  • Poor Concentration
  • Easily Distracted
  • Uncoordinated
  • Self-Criticism
  • Tightness in Chest
  • Hyperventilating
  • Crying
  • Feeling Light-Headed

With social anxiety, a person will go to great lengths to avoid feared situations. They may also understand their anxiety response is excessive or unreasonable, but it does not change how they feel. Due to the fear of being judged by others, people with social anxiety find it difficult to not see those feared situations as real-life threats.

Situations That May Trigger Social Anxiety

Here is a list of potential situations a person with social anxiety may be afraid of:

  • Speaking in Public
  • Being Made the Center of Attention
  • Speaking to People in Authority Positions
  • Asking for Help
  • Being in a Group Setting
  • Taking or Making Phone Calls
  • A Place Where They are Expected to Perform
  • Interviewing
  • Being Looked at By Others
  • Any Situation Where A Person Feels Noticed, Observed, or Scrutinized
  • Interacting With Unfamiliar People
  • Making Eye Contact
  • Eating in Front of Others
  • Entering a Room When People Are Already Seated
  • Feeling as if People Notice Your Anxiety
  • Going to Parties
  • Inviting People to Home
  • Using Public Toilets
  • Checking Out at a Store
  • Taking a Class
  • Going to Work or School

What Causes Social Anxiety?

Of course, like any other psychological disorder, what may cause social anxiety has many different risk factors.

Previous situations where a person felt humiliated, embarrassed, or fearful: When a person feels humiliated, embarrassed, and fearful often times they will create a better response for next time or create a strategy to avoid that from happening again. People with social anxiety focus more on avoiding situations they believe may cause them to feel humiliated, embarrassed, and fearful.

Thinking patterns, believing situations will go badly: Having the belief that a situation will go badly will increase the likelihood that it will. What we believe is our reality and because of that reality, people with social anxiety focus on reinforcing their beliefs in feared social situations. If a person thinks “everyone will look at me and think I’m weird when I come to class late” when they arrive to class and people are looking at them enter the room, they are more likely to believe it is because others are thinking negatively about them.

Not knowing how to cope with a negative evaluation: Sometimes people do not know how to approach a situation in which they felt negatively evaluated. This is especially difficult for someone who already has insecurities about what is being criticized. Some people will internalize and believe those negative evaluations just because someone else said it.

Genetics: People who have siblings or parents who suffer from social anxiety are more likely to develop social anxiety. Sometimes people with social anxiety display hyperactivity in the amygdala and limbic regions of the brain. Such people are also found to have low levels of brain chemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and glutamate.

Trauma and bad experiences: Childhood trauma and stressful life events can have an impact on the development of social anxiety disorder. Some examples of these experiences are:

  • Physical, Sexual, or Emotional Abuse
  • A parent’s death or abandonment
  • Stress in the mother during pregnancy or infancy
  • Peer bullying and teasing
  • Divorce, unhealthy family dynamics, domestic violence

Life demands: Sometimes people have difficulty keeping up with life demands, for example, work, school, or anywhere where they are expected to perform. They may feel more pressure to not mess up and to display a lack of performance.

Stress: Stress refers to the present-day life problems that may be affecting a person.

How to Cope with Social Anxiety?

Setting aside time to worry: Make a decision to not worry all day. Give yourself time to worry, acknowledge your feelings, and implement some coping skills. When that time is up, tell yourself you will focus on other things for now and come back to worry later. You can always revisit it if you need to.

Be willing to experience discomfort: This is a big one! This is what anxiety, in a nutshell: fear of experiencing discomfort. If you practice becoming more accepting of discomfort, you are more likely to see discomfort as something that doesn’t have to stop you from doing what you would like to do.

Believing your anxiety triggers can be managed: Simply believing your anxiety triggers can be managed is a step close to anxiety relief. If you believe your anxiety triggers can be managed, this helps boost confidence in your abilities and promote self-esteem.

Developing healthy thoughts: Learning how to develop new thoughts about social situations and about yourself is a good way to manage your anxiety.

Focus more on the external than the internal in social situations: Instead of being self-conscious and focusing on how you are presenting yourself in a social situation, focus on what’s going on around you.

Decrease avoidance behaviors that keep you from being social: Instead of avoiding a feared situation, try to feel the fear and be social anyway.

Realizing anxiety is natural: Anxiety is a natural emotion.

Breathing anxiety away through deep breathing: Deep breathing can help control anxiety. Controlled breathing helps to decrease anxiety by helping the body relax.

There is always more to learn about social anxiety disorder. This information is just basic knowledge. If you would like to know more, you can start by visiting Mental Health America and the Social Anxiety Association.

Comment below! What did you learn? Or what can you add to this topic? I appreciate your input and hope that it helps others as well.

The content of this site is for informational and educational purposes only. This website is not intended to be a substitute for professional therapeutic, psychological, psychiatric, or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Read the full disclaimer HERE.

Published by Asha Griffin, MA, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH

I am Asha Griffin, a licensed professional counselor in South Carolina. I am dedicated to improving the mental health of others and helping them to "tend to their gardens". My goal is to inspire people in finding better balance in their lives.

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