“Ever since I walked into my work canteen and a table full of people burst out laughing while seemingly looking straight at me, I have become more and more anxious in social situations. I am quite a shy person and had only recently started my new job. Six months on, although I still meet friends on a one to one basis, I now dread every lunchtime and invitations to social events. It really is starting to have an impact on my life but I find it an embarrassing topic to talk to anyone about. Is there any advice you could offer?”
The first point to make is that many people will read your question and be grateful that you have raised it – social anxiety, or social phobia as it is sometimes known, is one of the most common anxiety disorders. For some people the anxiety they experience is triggered by specific social situations, for example introducing themselves in a group such as a class or a meeting, or going to a dinner party and eating in front of people they don’t know. Other people may suffer from generalized social anxiety disorder, and experience anxiety in most social situations.
It is important not to confuse getting nervous with social anxiety disorder. There are lots of people who are shy and self-conscious and find certain social situations very uncomfortable. The difference between shyness and social anxiety disorder is that the latter interferes with your normal daily life and can cause terrible distress.
The symptoms of social anxiety disorder can be:
Emotional – e.g. a fear that your behaviour will embarrass or humiliate you or that you’re being watched or judged by others, especially those you don’t know.
Physical – e.g. a racing heart, upset stomach, blushing, trembling voice
Behavioural – e.g. a need to always take someone you know with you, drinking before an event to calm your nerves or, as you’ve highlighted, avoiding social situations with the effect of limiting or disrupting your life.
The good news is that there are several ways you can reduce your social anxiety. In your case it sounds like you may be having unhelpful thoughts which are making it difficult for you to overcome your feelings of anxiety and starting to lead to you avoiding social situations or, at least, escaping from them as quickly as possible e.g. do you stay and eat in the canteen, or buy a takeaway lunch to eat elsewhere?
One of the problems in overcoming social anxiety is that different factors feed off each other to form a vicious circle which keeps the social anxiety going, feeding your fear. For example:
- You visit the canteen and start thinking everyone is looking at you.
- This leads to you feeling nervous and self-conscious; physical symptoms such as your heart racing or blushing result.
- You then think everyone will notice how anxious you must appear.
- This raises your anxiety levels still further which is when you’ll probably make an excuse and leave.
- Your thoughts about the experience will justify your behaviour, in that it could have been even worse if you had stayed and will feed your fear about having to visit the canteen again tomorrow.
So, how can you move forward? As we mentioned, there are a number of strategies which can be used to break the aforementioned cycle and it is a matter of finding what works for you.
It may be that by learning how to challenge your unhelpful thoughts you begin to see situations in a more positive way. Have you considered, for example, that you just happened to be moving through the canteen (and therefore caught their attention) just at the moment one of the members at that table got to the punch line of their joke and the whole table’s laughter had nothing to do with you?
Also, learning not to focus on oneself during a social interaction allows you to concentrate on the conversation happening at that moment. Some people report that this has reduced their physical symptoms, improved their judgement of their performance, and made the next interaction less feared. Mindfulness training includes techniques which can be learned and has had particularly strong results in helping people develop this skill.
Research has shown that if you can stay in the situation which makes you anxious for long enough, your anxiety will reduce. Each time you expose yourself to the same situation will lead to your feeling of anxiety becoming less and less and this, together with it taking a shorter period each time for your anxiety to reduce, will allow your confidence in handling the social situation to grow.
Our final advice to you would be to treat your social anxiety as you would a physical injury. Please go and talk to your GP who will be able to discuss your options with you. They may discuss CBT, self-help therapies, antidepressants or psychotherapy. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to continue to dread your daily visits to the canteen, or that wedding reception next month – you’ve identified that it is affecting your quality of life and there will be a way for you to move forward. We wish you the very best of luck.
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