Many of us have experienced some form of social stress from time to time. Whether you’re presenting during a class project or attending an event where you don’t know many people, it’s certainly not uncommon to feel a sense of nervousness or self-consciousness. However, there is a form of social stress that contributes to a far more severe reaction. This condition is known as social anxiety.
Rather than experiencing some shyness in front of a crowd of people, social anxiety presents as more of a phobia which, if not addressed, can create a myriad of problems to your mental health and well-being. Fortunately, there are effective strategies that you can use to help overcome your social anxiety and give you more control in your life.
Follow along to find out more about the signs and symptoms of social anxiety, what can trigger it over the years, and how to manage it in a productive way.
Social anxiety disorder is an extremely debilitating condition characterized by a persistent fear of being embarrassed or scrutinized by others. Arising in nearly 13% of the population, social anxiety is more common than you may think. It can create feelings of stress, inadequacy, and immense worry to be present in a social setting.
What makes this condition so disabling is the expression of several different physical, psychological, and emotional symptoms. Some common physical symptoms of social anxiety include:
- rapid heartbeat
- trembling or nervous shaking
- upset stomach or nausea
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- difficulty catching your breath
- trouble thinking or forming sentences
On the other hand, the psychological and emotional components to social anxiety include the following symptoms:
- fear of judgment based on inadequate social performance in front of peers or strangers
- constant worry of saying or doing the wrong thing or causing embarrassment
- feeling severe awkwardness or inadequacy around others
- harsh self-judgements following conversations or interactions with others
- a strong urge to avoid becoming the center of attention
There are several different causes of social anxiety — from genetic inheritance to abusive parenting styles and other traumatic experiences. For many people, having previous experience of teasing, bullying, rejection, or total humiliation can be a major cause of social anxiety later in life. When combined with other negative events such as trauma, abuse, or ongoing negative family conflict, it creates the perfect storm to develop social anxiety.
A 2018 study found that social anxiety is relatively uncommon in early childhood and increases through adolescence 13 years and older. This study found that this condition appeared to affect adolescent teens more significantly since they are more sensitive to peer pressure, experience heightened vulnerability in a social setting, and are more self-conscious about their appearance.
As we enter adulthood, although we are far less resistant to peer influence, we continue to pay attention to what others think. However, it is far less common to develop social anxiety later in life when an individual has not experienced negative social situations and does not have a family history.
1. Plan Ahead
If you’ve committed to taking part in a social event, it’s important to plan for this situation to help you feel more confident and relaxed. You can do this by brushing up on some topics of conversation that are relevant to the event or social gathering you’re attending.
For example, if you’re going on a first date, it’s helpful to have a few thought-provoking questions handy to keep the conversation flowing with ease. In turn, this will take a ton of pressure off you and hopefully minimize your symptoms of anxiety.
2. Start Small
Without having to jump into a huge, overwhelming social situation, it’s helpful to start small and ease your way into this sort of experience. Try planning a night out with a couple of close friends or family members at your favourite restaurant or escape your comfort zone by making eye contact and saying hello to strangers in the grocery store.
As you gain more exposure to social situations, you will build the confidence to join bigger social activities. Continue to take small steps and be patient with the process. Remember that it takes time to overcome symptoms of social anxiety — there’s no need to dive in headfirst into the deep end.
3. Control Your Breathing
Practicing breathing techniques is an excellent way to help you control many of your physical symptoms of social anxiety. Mindful breathing works by tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system and helping to keep you in a state of relaxation. As you slow your breathing pattern down to long and full breaths, you’ll feel less tense, dizzy, and anxious.
One helpful technique to control your breathing is by resting in a seated position with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Start by inhaling a slow and deep breath through your nose for 4 seconds. Notice how your belly rises while your chest stays still — this indicates you’re breathing deep into your lungs. Hold your breath for 2 seconds and slowly exhale through your mouth for 6 seconds. Repeat 10-20 times or until you feel fully relaxed.
Although many of these strategies may be helpful for the short-term management of social anxiety, it’s important to note that most cases require a more targeted approach. If you’re experiencing persistent and severe symptoms of social anxiety, it may be time to consider counselling. Among the many different forms of counselling practices, one of the most beneficial is known as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
CBT is a well-known therapeutic approach that can be applied to various conditions. The reason this approach is so effective with social anxiety is that it offers strategies to help people work through their thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours that lead to this condition. Over the course of your sessions, CBT will offer you a wide range of coping strategies by teaching you skills to build self-confidence and self-esteem no matter what kind of social situation you’re involved in.
At On Your Mind Counselling, our team of experienced professionals have the knowledge and skills to help you work through and overcome your symptoms of social anxiety. We consider your comfort a priority. With that, we offer a safe and non-judgmental environment to give you the opportunity to speak freely. No matter how you’re feeling, you’ll be met with warmth, compassion, and the utmost desire to be by your side every step of the way.
If you’re interested in learning more, get started today by booking a free consultation here!
Written by Tori Mudie BA, MA, RP, CCC