Social anxiety is the regular experience of feeling awkwardness, dread, fear, anxiety and panic, amongst others, in social situations. Social anxiety might not occur in all social situations. For example one might feel comfortable in one-to-one relationships but very ill at ease amongst groups of friends or in large crowds. Conversely one might feel confident in groups but insecure in emotionally intimate situations. Shyness is not a prerequisite for social anxiety and many people do a good job of hiding their feelings. Excessive drinking or taking recreational drugs may be one way to do this. Often others would never guess that an individual was experiencing social anxiety, they might come across as very confident or in control when actually they have made a huge effort to manage their anxiety.
Of course feeling anxious in social situations is an entirely natural part of being human. This is particularly so if one is not familiar with the other person or if speaking to a large group. Indeed expecting oneself to never feel socially anxious adds unhelpful pressure and most likely increases anxious feelings. Therefore an individual suffering from social anxiety has the symptoms described below which negatively impact social situations. Social anxiety symptoms occur on a spectrum from mild to acute with the most severe form called Social Anxiety Disorder. This can lead to avoiding people, public spaces or spending increasing amounts of time at home. It affects the individuals’ overall quality of life and elements of their social life become dysfunctional. Such a person may fit the criteria for Avoidant Personality Disorder. At the less extreme end of the spectrum an individual can be described as experiencing social anxiety.
Regardless of which end of the social anxiety spectrum, the intensity of the feelings can be very difficult to manage and often overwhelming. They are often accompanied by very critical thoughts about one-self as not being ‘good enough’, ‘eloquent enough’, ‘interesting enough’ or ‘confident enough’, amongst others. One may also compare oneself unfavourably or imagine that others are judging disapprovingly. This can then lead to a vicious circle where one becomes more and more anxious and therefore more and more self-critical until the anxiety becomes unbearable. Individuals can often feel embarrassed or ashamed and consequently do not share what is going on, cutting themselves off from sources of support, which in turn leads to loneliness and low mood.
This is often very effective as within the safety of the therapeutic alliance with a non-judgemental and accepting therapist, the individual has the opportunity to get to grips with their social anxiety. Since the therapeutic relationship itself can be a source of anxiety, this is also an appropriate medium through which to work through the issues that arise in relationship, at a pace that feels manageable to the individual.
This can help by equipping the client with tools such as rethinking how they view themselves and the situation that makes them feel anxious in such a way that is more helpful. As a result they feel more empowered and in control, which leads to increased self-esteem and helps them to beat the viscous circle of anxiety and self-doubt. CBT can also provide strategies for managing the anxiety symptoms.
In your initial conversation with a trained therapist they will ask pertinent questions in a non-judgemental way to find out more. They will ask you how much time you have to work on your issue and what you would like the outcome of therapy to be. After this, they will refer you to a practitioner who specialises in this area. Should you embark on psychotherapy, although exactly what is covered will depend on the therapist, some time will be spent looking at the negative thoughts you have about your own worth, and of others who may be deemed critical or judgemental of you. The practitioner will help you to challenge these thoughts and will support your growing self-confidence and ability to relate to others in an effective way that is in line with your own needs. The aim is for you to be able to risk social situations you previously found too painful, so that you can also gain the rewards from them.