It’s December and most of us will find our social calendars are busier than usual. While many people will be looking forward to socialising with friends and colleagues at this time of year, people with social anxiety are likely to be feeling apprehension or even dread.
What is social anxiety?
You know how it feels to be anxious in a social situation: the knot in your stomach and the tightness in your chest before you walk into a room full of strangers, or the way your hands shake and your heart pounds as you stand up to deliver a speech. Nerves are a normal response to challenges such as meeting new people or presenting in front of an audience. In the right proportion, they can motivate us to perform better.
Social anxiety (or social phobia) is considered to be a mental health disorder when our fear of embarrassment, criticism or rejection is so intense, distressing and all-consuming that it impairs our functioning and leads us to withdraw from everyday activities. It can cause debilitating physical symptoms such as exhaustion, headaches and bowel disorders. It may also be accompanied by panic attacks. Left untreated, severe social anxiety can lead to isolation, disability, and an increased risk of suicide.
Social anxiety can’t be “switched off”. It’s not just a case of worrying less or deciding not to care what other people think. The root cause may be low self-esteem, often as a result of bullying or abuse in early life and it is very difficult to overcome without support. Another cause is when a person has had a panic attack in a social setting. From then on, they associate having to socialise with, or perform in front of, people with a sense of threat or danger.
Treating and managing social anxiety
I have a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder. This means I feel anxious about all kinds of things, but there’s a definite emphasis on social situations. In my worst phases I’ve experienced uncontrollable surges of adrenaline that make me panicky and physically sick at the thought of interacting with people. I’ve found that a combination of medication and cognitive behavioural therapy has helped. People also benefit from exercise, meditation, deep breathing, and diet or lifestyle changes.
If you experience social anxiety, there are many treatment options available. It’s best to discuss your individual needs with your doctor or healthcare professional. Here I’ll share three ideas I learned in therapy most effective in helping me control my anxiety.
This was possibly my biggest breakthrough. For years I’d judged myself harshly for freaking out over trivial things like a meeting or a night out with people I didn’t know. That guilt only made things worse. Once I stopped blaming myself for a condition I didn’t choose to have, I was more able to accept my anxiety. I learned to live with the condition without judgement, and see it as as a feeling that would pass.
Recognising that my goal was not to be anxiety-free
No one gets through life without feeling fear. If we want to grow and develop we have to keep putting ourselves in new situations we find challenging. I never made achieving a stress-free life the goal of my therapy. Instead the aim was to reduce my anxiety to a manageable level to take advantage of opportunities instead of avoiding them.
Focusing on my strengths
In the age of selfies and social media it’s easy to imagine social confidence is the most important thing in life. However it is only one facet of who we are. We may never light up a room with our charisma, but we may be attentive listeners, reliable workers, talented artists or loyal friends. Removing the pressure to excel in one area can relieve our stress, and allow us to shine in others.
How you can help people with social anxiety
The next time you’re at a large gathering it’s likely several people in the room will be experiencing social anxiety. It’s not always possible to tell, since socially anxious people aren’t necessarily quiet or shy (and quiet people may not be anxious). But if you encounter someone who seems less confident, there are simple ways to help us feel more comfortable.
Don’t draw attention to our anxiety
The least helpful thing for me (and it happens a lot) is when someone at a party says, ‘you seem nervous’ or ‘you’re very quiet, aren’t you?’. Pointing out or making fun of our awkwardness can make us feel a hundred times more self-conscious. Be warm and friendly, include us in your conversation, but avoid shining a spotlight on our behaviour.
Don’t enforce participation in ‘fun’ activities
One reason people with social anxiety dread the party season is the fear we’ll be expected to play team games, sing, or perform in front of others. This can feel agonising when we hate being the focus of attention. If your guest wants to opt out of an activity or leave early, accept it without fuss. It helps us feel more relaxed at your events in future.
Be supportive of people trying to overcome their anxiety
You shouldn’t pressure anyone to socialise if they’re not feeling up to it. But if you know a friend or colleague is trying to address their issues, you can help and encourage them. Listen with empathy to their fears and concerns. Then go with them to a business or social occasion and give them lots of positive reinforcement beforehand and afterwards.
By Catherine North
If you’d like to learn more about social anxiety, or other mental health issues, Delphis offers face-to-face workshops and online courses to help. All workshops are delivered and developed by highly educated and experienced facilitators. We are committed to helping companies create mentally healthy, productive and rewarding working environments for their staff.
It makes a great deal of sense to invest in the mental well-being of your staff. Christmas and New Year are typically periods when sickness and absence from mental health issues are at their peaks. Raising awareness of mental health issues in your organisation is the first step towards prevention.
Please get in touch to discuss how we can provide customised mental health training for your organisation to fit your needs.