Recently, I’ve noticed by sister demonstrating moderate signs of social anxiety. She is an incredibly confident individual. So to see her getting anxious, sweaty and showing temporary avoidance behaviours in different social situations really made me intrinsically think about my own social anxiety. She asks me for advice, but I feel like a hypocrite telling her how to overcome hers when I haven’t properly addressed mine.
What is social anxiety?
According to the NHS, anxiety is the term used to describe a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe. So, it makes sense that social anxiety is when these symptoms occur in relation to social situations/interactions. Out of my sister and me, I have a higher intensity of social anxiety. My sister’s anxiety applies to certain situations, for example, she gets nervous calling up for appointments or going to gatherings of adults much older than her (the worry of potential awkward conversation). On the other hand, my social anxiety spreads to a bigger variety of social situations, such as, being watched while doing something, being asked a question (one time my face turned like a tomato when a person I was being introduced to simply asked my name), being the centre of attention and the list goes on and on and on.
“My mind’s gone blank!”
One of my most frustrating symptoms! Honestly, I didn’t know it was a symptom of my social anxiety until a friend of mine (who has lots more difficulty with her anxiety) mentioned how frustrating this symptom was for her. I actually thought that I might not have skills in small talk or had anything interesting to say so my mind would go ‘blank’. Sometimes I’ve been told that I am more of the introverted individual in my family and hence I associated the ‘mind going blank/having nothing to say’ as part of my introversion. Turns out I was wrong, the ‘mind going blank’ is a common symptom for those who experience social anxiety.
Unfortunately, if someone is not aware your mind goes blank (and how could they unless they were psychic) then the quietness or a blank stare that comes with the mind going blank can be interpreted negatively. Sometimes people have got the impression that ‘I don’t like them’ or ‘I’m socially awkward’. This isn’t the case at all, my mind has just gone blank, pure and simple! This happens occasionally, but when it does its bloody frustrating/embarrassing.
“Your face has gone red.”
This is a very common critique I receive in social situations. Any form of attention from a large group of people, conversation/attention from someone who I deem to be better than me or someone I feel is judgemental towards me, causes my face to go red. I can feel it, my face feels incredibly hot. I’ve found ways to divert the attention away from my red skin such as “is it more or is it hot in here?”, “gosh I’m 25 and I think I’ve hit menopause” (terrible joke). Basically, I try and suggest that my face has gone red due to physical problems rather than psychological. Somehow that seems easier for myself and other people to deal with. But, it’s probably not the best way to deal with the root cause of the social anxiety.
Self-esteem and my social anxiety.
Analysing all the social situations I get anxious over, I’ve realised that it goes hand in hand with my issues of low-self esteem and my terrible tendency to self-critique myself negatively and incorrectly while critiquing others positively or in some grand manner. In other words, I compare myself too harshly with others and expect myself to be on this magnificent platform (such as obtaining huge confidence, being smart, being interesting and ‘cool’) which I can’t seem to reach. In reality, I can be a confident person, I have 2 degrees so I must be a bit smart, I’ve done interesting things and….someone on this planet must find me cool…(I’m due to meet them…hopefully before I die).
When social anxiety got too much for me.
When I was younger my social anxiety did sometimes become too much, I would call in sick to avoid school and if I was at school I would pretend to be sick so I could go home. I would cry over nothing, sometimes hysterically and became over sensitive and very critical of myself. Sometimes I would avoid social situations altogether, like social clubs or family gatherings.
Now my social anxiety is not as bad. Although, I’m slightly bitter that I didn’t receive help when I was younger or nobody spotted out that I was quite emotionally unstable! I will say that social anxiety can be, to a certain extent, a difficulty not always perceived with the eye. Some people might not notice your anxiety, although it can feel like a raging bull inside of you.
Sometimes I feel that my childhood anxieties have followed me into my adult life, which again is annoying. Well, life is unfair so there’s nothing I can do about my past now. But, I can control the present and accept that social anxiety happens with everyone, but I need to recognise that it should never get to a stage where it hugely impacts on my life. Like it did in my childhood.
There are some guidelines on helping yourself with social anxiety.
Here are some websites:
Relaxation/Breathing techniques. There are free youtube videos of relaxing music/instructions to help you with this. Some mental health websites include CD/DVD’s you can order/download to help with anxiety. In some social situations it isn’t practical to pull out some relaxing music so learning to do breathing and muscle relaxing exercises in your head can help calm the mind and body.
Challenging unrealistic thinking. Individuals (including myself) experience negative thoughts about themselves and social situations. By challenging these thoughts we are able to question if what we think are facts or unrealistic expectations. For example, if we think “if I attend the party, no one will want to talk to me”. Now we try to challenge this thought with experiences in the past. Have people spoken to you when you’ve been to parties before? How do you know people won’t want to talk to you? Do people really think you are boring? Even if you felt that one person at the party did find you boring, does that reflect everyone else in the room? Additionally, for each social situation you experience, write down what happened. This gives you time to write down the facts of what happened in the situation which you can later reflect on if you start to feel anxious about another similar situation. Another thought, which I have presented to other clients when dealing with their anxiety or other emotional difficulties is, what would you say to a friend who was in the same situation/feeling the same way?
Face up to the things that make you anxious. This isn’t necessarily the solution to those with social anxiety disorder as it’s likely you face up to a lot of situations that cause you to be anxious. It’s probably the case that you need more formal treatment to support yourself. But, to those with a milder form of social anxiety who use avoidance techniques in dealing with your social anxiety, challenging your fears and worries head on might help challenge your unrealistic thoughts. Remember to write down your experiences? In order to do that, you need to experience them! This might include dis-including yourself from social situations to using alcohol or drugs to ‘relax’ or avoiding drawing attention to oneself. So try to do the opposite, or take smaller steps before totally doing the opposite.
Meet more people. Maybe network with others who experience the same difficulties as you or try to boost your confidence by meeting more people with your interests and hobbies. Whether it be through volunteer organisations, dating services or sports clubs.
When it gets too much – Social anxiety disorder.
Some individuals who experience social anxiety might develop social anxiety disorder or their social anxiety might be in relation to other conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or anorexia etc. Self-help techniques are beneficial but additional professional forms of treatment are more beneficial.
A type of treatment used could be cognitive behavioural therapy. This type of therapy helps people to learn how to think and believe differently about themselves. It is applicable to everyday life and helps provide structure to someone’s recovery with a working professional who should tailor the therapy to the client’s needs/condition and scenario. It’s also a great way to help keep track and understand someone’s progress through their recovery.
Behavioural therapy groups. Similar to cognitive behavioural therapy, and likely to follow the same principles except that it’s in a group setting rather than one-to-one. Some people might find a group setting to be a good motivational tool in recovery. This is dependent on the individual.
Anxiety is considered something of an imperfection. In fairness anxiety is normal and we need it in our lives to survive! Ever heard of the fight or flight response to situations? Additionally, some anxiety can heighten our arousal and performance on certain tasks.But too much can have negative consequences on our lives. It’s up to us to learn how to control the negative impacts of anxiety. Don’t forget, none of us is perfect and for all you know, someone else in the room has probably experienced/or is experiencing social anxiety too. Also, keep practising your self-help techniques. Practice makes perfect 🙂