What social anxiety actually feels like and what you can do about it
The likelihood is we’ve all been affected by social anxiety disorder (or social phobia); whether having suffered from it personally or through a friend, family member or colleague. It’s one of the most common anxiety disorders, with an estimated 12% of people experiencing it sometime in their lives, and it’s the third biggest mental health issue worldwide.
The term ‘anxiety’ arguably doesn’t do it justice. Unlike the natural feeling of unease that comes with exams or interviews, anxiety is long-lasting and often feels overwhelming. It’s defined as ‘the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people’, according to the Social Anxiety Association (SAA). ‘Social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. It is a pervasive disorder that causes anxiety and fear in most all areas of a person’s life. It is chronic because it does not go away on its own. Only direct cognitive-behavioural therapy can change the brain, and help people overcome social anxiety.’
WHAT ARE THE SIGNS OF SOCIAL ANXIETY?
Outwardly social phobia can manifest as shyness, quietness, unfriendliness or disinterestedness, which is particularly cruel as the nature of the disorder means, though people can want to be engaging, sociable and open, it’s fear that holds them back.
A whole host of things can set off the anxiety spiral; from having to meet other people, particularly those who they consider important or authoritative, to having to speak in social scenarios, whether on the phone, in day-to-day conversation, with strangers at the shops or in groups at parties, or in a professional capacity.
The experience, for the person suffering from anxiety, can vary hugely. It’s often said to be accompanied by fear, dread, nervousness, with physical symptoms like sweating, blushing, a dry mouth, a racing heart (a.k.a palpitations) and nausea. It can lead to a dysmorphia, which makes the person feel as if they’re acting unusually, appearing incompetent or being judged all the time, and negative thought patterns which can exacerbate the anxiety.
In extreme cases, it can lead to panic attacks which feel like an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety but only last few a few minutes.
John Ogunmuyiwa’s short film Wilson for Channel 4’s Random Acts is a painfully relatable insight into social anxiety
WHAT’S THE BEST ADVICE FOR PEOPLE SUFFERING FROM ANXIETY?
A huge amount of the power of anxiety comes with not being able to talk about it, so don’t be surprised if you or the person you know suffering from it doesn’t feel like opening up. It feeds on the thought trails about feeling like an outsider and having to deal with everything alone so, you’ll find that when it feels possible to speak to someone about the feelings, it will take away much of their potency.
If you know someone with anxiety, give them opportunities to speak about it and let them know you’re there, but don’t push the conversation.
Different people will respond to different forms of treatment, like CBT and talking therapy, but they may not be ready to accept the diagnosis or to seek help.
HOW DO YOU COPE WITH ANXIETY?
It can be pretty all-encompassing, which can lead to feelings of hopelessness, but there are lots of things that can be done to improve and ultimately overcome social anxiety.
Though it’s tempting to build a life for oneself where you don’t have to interact with humans, it’s unsurprisingly not the best POA.
Remember, though it doesn’t feel like it, especially within stiff upper lip Brit society, it’s okay not to be okay.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to feel ‘fine’; it will only make things worse. Though it feels like the maddest thing to do, it’s important to accept you aren’t feeling the way you want to and be comfortable with that as only then will the anxiety dissipate.
Breathing can play a huge part in our feelings of calm and anxiety so, if things start feeling overwhelming, make sure you’re breathing deeply and fully into the ribcage and collarbones.
Meditation and mindfulness have all been proven to improve anxiety in the last few years. If you’re new to them, try Headspace or My Possible Self for intros. Likewise, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which helps to manage problems by changing the way you think and behave, is a popular treatment.
If you yourself are suffering, know there are people you can speak to; either friends or family, who will want to listen, or one of the many helplines, like Anxiety UK.