8 Things To Know About Social Anxiety & How To Deal With It, According To Therapists
It's relatively common to feel nervous before big events, where you might be the center of attention, or to clam up during an important meeting at work. But when it comes to having social anxiety, even the smallest of social interactions can feel equally overwhelming, which is why it's important to spot the signs as early as possible.
"Social anxiety can become quite debilitating if it gets severe or generalizes to multiple settings," Joshua Klapow, PhD, clinical psychologist and host of The Kurre and Klapow Show, tells Bustle. "Unlike a specific fear or phobia (being afraid of closed spaces, snakes, heights, etc.), social anxiety is a broad fear of social gatherings and in particular the feeling of being judged or critiqued in those situations."
It can hold you back from going to work, visiting with friends, meeting new people, or even running errands around town. "Because so much of our life is spent in social settings, having social anxiety can greatly reduce a person’s ability to interact in society successfully," Dr. Klapow says. "If self-help strategies are not working, cognitive behavioral psychotherapy and in some cases medications can be very effective." Here are a few things therapists want everyone to know about social anxiety, from what it feels like to how to overcome it, and beyond.
1. The Experience Is Different For Everyone
One important thing to keep in mind, is that no two cases of social anxiety ever look exactly alike. "The presentation of it can look different for different people, and the severity of it ranges as well," Karly Hoffman King, a licensed mental health counselor, tells Bustle. "Sometimes it’s specific to certain situations such as speaking in public, or meeting new people at a party, but for other sufferers it influences any social interaction they have."
It may even cause you to avoid others entirely. "For some, the anxiety becomes so unbearable that their life [becomes] organized around avoiding social interactions," King says. "They stop hanging out with friends or trying to meet people. Things like dating or going to a job interview may feel impossible. Even smaller interactions such as checking out at the grocery store or ordering food at a restaurant can feel like unbearable tasks for someone with social anxiety. It truly affects so many areas of their life."
2. You May Feel Awkward
This type of anxiety can also play out in the form of social awkwardness, which can leave you fumbling for conversations starters, or feeling very uncomfortable at get-togethers.
"Watching a person with social anxiety you will often see them either try to avoid social situations all together, or establish a 'safe spot,'" Dr. Klapow says. "It may be at a back table or in the corner, where they feel they cannot be in the middle of attention."
It can also make you appear disengaged or bored, when really you're just anxious. As Dr. Klapow says, "They may also give signals of wanting to leave the social situation for 'no particular reason.' Finally, they may speak awkwardly, say things out of anxiety, or have nervous laughter — all of these signaling their lack of comfort in the situation."
If this sounds familiar, don't be hard on yourself. These are classic symptoms of social anxiety, and can definitely be improved by going to therapy.
3. Nobody's Judging You
When you have social anxiety, it feels like you're standing in the spotlight and everyone's staring at you — even though that's obviously not the case.
And it can help to remind yourself of that. "It's natural to worry about what people think of you," Dr. Crystal I. Lee, licensed psychologist and owner of LA Concierge Psychologist, tells Bustle.
But if it's beginning to consume your thoughts, there's plenty you can do. "Just remember that your thoughts are not truths [...] Instead, focus on the present and what is actually going on in the world around you," Dr. Lee says. "The less power you give those words floating around in your head and the more you engage with the physical world around you, the less anxiety you'll feel."
4. Social Anxiety Isn't The Same As Being "Antisocial"
While social anxiety can make you seem antisocial — especially if you're avoiding others completely — it's not the same thing as being antisocial, or having antisocial personality disorder.
"Individuals with social anxiety typically desire social interaction but their minds usually run with negative thought loops regarding the perceptions of others," psychotherapist Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher, CAGS, LMHC, tells Bustle. "Social anxiety can result in loneliness, as a result." Which isn't a feeling folks who are truly antisocial tend to have.
5. There Are Ways To Pick Up Some Coping Skills
When it comes to moving past social anxiety, the more coping skills you can arm yourself with, the better.
"Individuals should engage actively in coping strategies in social situations," Dr. Klapow says. "Reminding themselves to stay calm, reminding themselves that they are not being judged — it is just the anxiety — and so on." It all helps.
Going to therapy may also be key in helping you recover from social anxiety. Your therapist may use cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, to help you overcome your fears. They can also teach you a few more tricks to try out the next time you're feeling anxious, such as deep breathing techniques.
6. Learn How To "Ground" Yourself
Another coping skill, known as the "grounding technique," can come in handy whenever you're feeling overwhelmed. And it just so happens to be really easy.
"Name five things you see, four things you feel, three things you hear, two things you smell, and one thing you taste," Dr. Lee says. "This kind of activity forces you to be in the present moment, instead of staying inside your head."
7. Ask Your Friends For Help
One way to ease yourself back into the world, and feel more comfortable doing so, is by hitting the town with friends. As Dr. Klapow says, "Individuals with social anxiety tend to feel calmer when they are around a few close friends who can provide distraction and a calming experience."
Even if you're just going to the grocery store, ask your friend if they'd be willing to tag along to offer moral support. "This will help you stay engaged and focused versus letting the anxiety take over," he says.
8. Do It Anyway, Even If You're Nervous
One of the worst things you can do, when you have social anxiety, is give into it in favor of staying home, calling out of work, or skipping the party.
"As a therapist, the most critical piece of advice to give patients (although, it’s not typically what patients want to hear) is to go to the social events that you want to avoid," Weaver-Breitenbecher says. "Go. Process the negative thoughts you’re having and contrast them with actually facts."
It may be stressful in the moment, but really think about how it went. And at the very least, acknowledge that you did, in fact, live through it. "At the end of the day, the more positive experiences you can have in a social setting, the quieter the negative thoughts will become," Weaver-Breitenbecher says.
It may also help to go to therapy, and possibly even to take medication, to help get your anxiety under control. This is especially true if it's beginning to hold you back in life, so don't be afraid to reach out for help.