We’ve all been there. Looking at the clock as time goes by, worrying about an upcoming event or ruminating on an experience. The feeling of turning bright red, everyone staring, judging, and subsequently wishing you had not gone at all. Most people feel anxious or shy in certain social situations – such as meeting new people or performing in front of others. However, this can be more severe for some people – it can start to stop them from doing things they want to do.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety occurs when we perceive a threat in a particular social situation, and this anxiety motivates them to fear and avoid social situations. For example, they may be very concerned that they will do something embarrassing or that others will judge them. Although it is normal to feel occasional anxiety in social situations, it becomes a problem when it starts getting in the way of your ability to function and enjoy life.
What keeps anxiety going?
Avoidance and safety behaviours
Our thoughts about social situations influence how we feel and what we do. Therefore, if you feel anxious or anticipate feeling anxious, it makes sense that you will use avoidance behaviours to reduce anxiety or upsetting feelings. However, people with social anxiety often get into the habit of avoiding social situations entirely, making the problem worse. If you avoid situations that evoke social anxiety, managing them becomes more intimidating and more challenging. Some common situations that people with social anxiety avoid include attending appointments, phone calls, unfamiliar people, and large groups. For example, more specifically, someone afraid of unfamiliar people may: engage in drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, avoid going to any event where they may meet unfamiliar people, and if the anxiety is severe, they may not want to leave the house.
If this total avoidance is impossible, escape behaviours may be used to deal with feared situations. Examples of escape include leaving events early, walking out in the middle of a speech, hiding in the bathroom during a party. When neither avoidance nor escape is possible, partial avoidance (safety behaviours) may reduce anxiety during social situations. Safety behaviours generally limit or control your experience of a situation and may include things like avoiding eye contact, reducing verbal communication, or lowering your voice when speaking. These behaviours reduce anxiety at the time but make things worse in the long term as they make you feel you need to keep using them. This creates a cycle that maintains social anxiety where you do not get an opportunity to prove that you can cope without these behaviours.
We also often concentrate hard on how our bodies feel during social situations, which can keep social anxiety going—for example, worrying about blushing, sweating, or stammering. Socially anxious people tend to overestimate how much others pay attention to them. Focusing so closely on these worries mean your mind is likely to exaggerate how bad and noticeable they are, subsequently making it hard to concentrate or join in when you’re in a social situation.
How to avoid avoidance?
The good news is- you are not alone! There are exposure strategies you can use to help manage your social fears. The activity below, which can be found on the NHS website, focuses on graded exposure which consists of repeated and structured exposure to anxiety-provoking scenarios. These are presented in difficulty levels, starting with the situation or activity that provokes the least anxiety and progressing to more challenging ones. While it can feel uncomfortable to experience anxiety sensations in the short term, you will feel more in control of your anxiety in the long term. By continuously bringing on your anxiety sensations, you will become more tolerant and less bothered by them.
There are six steps to this activity:
- Create a list of scenarios that you often try to escape from or avoid. For example, you could write “attending social events”.
- Label each scenario with a “difficulty score” out of 10. For example, a scenario with no anxiety would be rated 0, whereas ten would be a scenario that causes extreme anxiety.
- Put the situations in order, from least to most anxiety.
- Start with the item on your list that causes you the least anxiety.
- Repeat the lowest rated item on your list until the anxiety has reduced.
This blog post was created with ❤️ by Sarah Louise Watson (CSMCOSCA, MBPsS)