Social anxiety affects more people than you may think. Coping with it, or helping someone else overcome this challenge, requires compassion, patience, and support. Growth and healing are possible; it just takes the right kind of help.
As the world is reopening, more people are feeling elevated levels of anxiety about social situations. We are all navigating the pandemic the best we can, and experiencing social anxiety symptoms is entirely understandable. Feeling nervousness, uncertainty, or even dread at the prospect of interactions is increasingly prevalent.
Taking a deeper dive into this mental health issue will equip you with some basics to help you or the people in your life. Support is crucial for overcoming omnipresent anxiety with social interactions.
Who Suffers From Social Anxiety?
Many people you would not expect are dealing with social anxiety, including some famed extroverts.
Jennifer Lawrence disclosed that she struggled with social anxiety from the time of primary school. Britney Spears recently revealed that she hides the part of herself that is shy and modest, pretending to be a different person on stage to deal with crippling feelings of anxiety. Adele would refuse to perform at festivals due to her fear of large crowds. The list goes on—even people that make their living on stage get anxious in social situations.
If you are struggling with social anxiety, you are not alone. According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition), 7% of children and adults in the U.S. have social anxiety—that means millions of people are living with this every day.
A Practical Clinical Perspective
Clinical experts describe social anxiety disorder as experiencing an excessive amount of anxiety and fear. This means feeling crippling awkwardness and embarrassment while around other people. It also causes avoidance behavior—which can soothe discomfort temporarily, but could cause you to form habits that make life feel out of balance in the long-term.
Social Anxiety vs. Shyness
Being shy is one thing, but being clinically diagnosed with social anxiety is another. Here are the symptoms of clinical social anxiety:
- Extreme fear of exposure to scrutiny in social situations.
- Constant worry about showing anxiety or fear.
- Severe anxiety that causes negative social interactions and avoidance behavior.
- Any and all social situations cause fear and anxiety.
- Social situations are paralyzing and avoiding them is time-consuming.
- Fear or anxiety that is out of proportion to the social situation or sociocultural context.
- Persistent fear, anxiety, or avoidance lasting six months or more.
- Symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other critical areas of functioning.
- Constant fear, anxiety, or avoidance that is not attributed to a substance (i.e., drug of abuse, medication, or another medical condition).
How to Treat Social Anxiety
While self-care can make you feel better momentarily, clinical help is recommended if you have a diagnosis. Here are two options that have shown positive results:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) places emphasis on a combination of exposure and learning to recognize the sources of social anxiety.
- Systematic desensitization—or graduated exposure therapy—is a series of exercises that help people practice different social situations while receiving timely responses from mental health professionals in therapy.
CBT and Cognitive Restructuring
Understanding our own mental processes is very empowering.
Within the CBT treatments, there is cognitive restructuring. It equips people with healthy ways to recognize and process thinking patterns. An irrational way of thinking, or cognitive distortion, includes emotional reasoning, jumping to conclusions, over-generalizations, and all-or-nothing thinking. For people suffering from this, a hiccup in their day may create the feeling that the world is ending, and these types of thought patterns are debilitating.
In counseling, the therapist will join the client in observing irrational assumptions and anxiety-producing mindsets. Together, they explore and challenge the accuracy of these mindsets to discover if it still benefits the client. Through cognitive restructuring, people develop a rational and healthy way of thinking, while indirectly making social situations a little more bearable.
CBT is the most clinically popular choice of treatment for social anxiety today, but clinicians are staying creative—offering a variety of other innovative approaches to meet clients’ unique cultural needs. The following includes just a few of these options.
We think this one is particularly beneficial. Systematic desensitization effectively helps people practice social situations outside the therapy room (which can be anxiety-provoking by itself). With this, treatment helps people to prepare and process how they react to social situations that trigger their anxiety.
Therapy and Relaxation Techniques
Clinic-based relaxing techniques to mediate anxiety, when paired with other treatments, guides people to observe fluctuations of emotional and physiological responses.
Ultimately, therapy is about the development of the therapist-client relationship. This therapeutic alliance is the most important therapeutic factor. Trust and open communication are the keys to therapeutic success.
How to Help Someone With Social Anxiety
Outside of therapy, there are things anyone can do to help loved ones or people we know manage social anxiety.
Self-care relaxation techniques outside of therapy offer small growth opportunities that culminate into substantial progress. Different breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and meditation all have proven benefits to help calm the nervous system. It’s all about managing anxiety symptoms.
You can find many useful guided relaxation resources on YouTube and various apps.
Practicing cognitive restructuring in daily life is another positive way to manage social anxiety. For this, you train yourself to put your anxiety-inducing thoughts to the test to see if your beliefs, assumptions, or expectations are accurate and fair. Doing so allows you to consider if other thoughts could explain the facts.
For example, if a person you like rejects an invitation to your housewarming party at the last minute, it does not necessarily mean they do not value your relationship. Maybe they have something urgent to do. There is no need to take it personally.
The takeaway is to cultivate a sense of mindfulness about your thinking. You want to observe your thoughts so that you can restructure and release the responsibility for other people’s thoughts and behaviors.
As humans, we are all social creatures who require interaction to function. There are so many tools out there—from therapy to self-care—for keeping social anxiety from standing in your way. You deserve the ability to engage, perform, and be social whenever you like. If you need some help navigating this, Humantold is here for you.