As lockdown is slowly easing in some countries, certainly in Gibraltar where I live, it seemed like the perfect time to put together some strategies to help cope with social anxiety. I myself have struggled with this for as long as I can remember, even as a child I found large gatherings and socialising with more than 5 or so people hard. It has taken me a long time to become more comfortable in large crowds and the social isolation of recent months has left me feeling nervous and unsure again. And I am sure I’m not the only one.
These hints and tips are helpful at all times, not just in a global pandemic so save them for future reference if you find them helpful!
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is exactly what it sounds like, anxiety caused by participating in or thinking about social interactions.
It normally starts during the sufferers teenage years, where it can have a devastating impact on social life and cause long term issues with depression and other disorders caused by lack of social support. Some people find that it eases on its own, but the majority will only improve with treatment.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:
Social anxiety disorder affects approximately 15 million American adults and is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobias.
What are the signs and symptoms of social anxiety?
There are 3 categories of symptoms that can be experienced by someone suffering with social anxiety, physical, emotional, and behavioural. These can have a huge impact on the individual’s daily life and relationships, as well as impacting their ability to find a job, have an active social life or maintain relationships.
Physical Symptoms can include:
- Rapid heart-beat
- Dizziness or unsteadiness
- Muscle tension or twitches
- Stomach upset ranging from cramps to vomiting and diarrhoea
- Blushing or flushed skin
- Trembling or shaking
- Excessive sweating
- Dry throat and mouth
- Heightened levels of anxiety and fear
- Panic attacks
- Negative emotional cycles including thoughts of inadequacy
- Self conscious thoughts
- Low self esteem
- Dysmorphia concerning part of their body (most commonly the face)
- Hyper-awareness of actions eg movements, sound of your voice or breathing
- Avoiding situations where you may be the center of attention
- Refraining from certain activities due to fear of embarrassment
- Becoming isolated by quitting a job, school or stopping socialising
- Excessive drinking or substance abuse, especially when in public or socialising
- Avoiding meeting new people or engaging in new situations
- Avoiding eye contact and or limiting interactions with people
- Limiting phone calls, texts, video chats etc
Personally I have extreme shakes, heightened fear levels and other adrenaline responses to public speaking or giving presentations, to some extent this is true in interviews as well, although with practice I have improved a lot. I struggle mostly with social interactions, more than 5 people in a group leads to a huge fear response and over analysing of the situation, I struggle to engage and am quickly left exhausted and often spiral into negative thoughts regarding my ability to socialise.
Common triggers include:
- Eating or drinking in front of other people
- Speaking in public
- Being the center of attention, whether it is talking or performing
- Talking to strangers, going on dates or meeting new people
- Interviewing for a new job
- Going to work or school
- Making eye contact
- Making or receiving phone calls in public
- Using public bathrooms or changing rooms
Strategies to cope:
I am going to split these strategies into 2 parts, how to reduce anxiety long term and how to cope more positively when in a situation where you are overwhelmed.
Both are important and necessary to improve, you also have to be willing to push boundaries and cope with discomfort, sad but true.
Reducing social anxiety:
- 1. Identify and reduce habitual thoughts:
This is the basis for CBT (or cognitive behaviour therapy), which aims to break the cycle of negative thoughts and behaviour patterns, the exact details of how are beyond the scope of this article. The important part for social anxiety is to recognise thoughts that are overwhelmingly negative or dramatised and to make it more realistic.
An example from psychology today : You attend a business lunch with people you don’t know. You think,” it will be a disaster… I’ll have nothing to say… Everyone will know how anxious I am..”
Realistic correction: “Lunch will probably go well… I’m usually articulate and make a nice impression… And if things don’t go perfectly, it won’t be the end of the world. We’ll take care of business, and that’s what people will remember.”
By recreating realistic scenarios instead of allowing “what ifs” to spiral into negative thoughts, your anxiety will be reduced and you will be able to focus more on the parts you can control like appearance and preparation level.
2. Face your fears:
Unfortunately you can’t avoid all the situations that trigger an anxiety response for the rest of your life and the number of situations you find difficult will only increase with time.
What I am not suggesting however is that you go from being unable to make eye contact with the postman to a 5 day festival with thousands of people. Treat your social anxiety in the same way you would a training plan for a marathon or completing a huge project.
- Identify the situations you avoid, or those that trigger the worst response and write them down. Go up to a maximum of 10
- For each situation break this down into small manageable chunks eg, 5 minutes in a crowd, slowly increasing the time until you feel comfortable. The idea is to push yourself outside your comfort zone but without triggering your anxiety.
- Congrats, you did it!
Coping in a situation:
If you find yourself in a situation which has got overwhelming or hard to cope with there are steps you can take to reduce your anxiety and hopefully leave with a positive outcome.
1. Shift your focus: It can be helpful to only focus on the task at hand, whether it is speaking clearly in a presentation or pouring wine. Concentrate on performing that action to the best of your ability or making sure you are actively listening rather than worrying about what to say next.
If anxiety continues to build try shifting your focus to more neutral and tactile factors. What can you see, hear or smell? What does the glass in your hand feel like? Are you warm or cold? Is there a breeze or are you sat in the sun?
These can help break the cycle and get you back to the task at hand.
2. Don’t be afraid to leave: I accept that this one is difficult in a work situation, but hopefully by taking steps to identify and break down your triggers, and to rephrase negative thoughts, hopefully you wont need to do this very often.
It is okay to leave a situation that is making you uncomfortable or if you are really struggling. Instead of just going home though try and take a break and go back. Go grab a drink, chill in the bathroom for 5 minutes and practice breathing exercises, go for a quick walk. Whatever you find helpful, browsing social media while still sitting in a stressful situation is NOT the way to go. You aren’t giving yourself the opportunity to relax and recharge so ultimately you wont feel better.
Rest, recharge and try again. If today is not your day then that’s okay too. Keep trying and you will get there.