What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Have you ever found yourself wondering, “what is social anxiety?” Is how I feel normal shyness or something more? Social anxiety is still a bit of a mystery—some people even think it’s a made-up problem or doesn’t exist. But, for people who live with this problem, it’s very real and life-altering (in a bad way).
Below, I’d like to help the general public understand what social anxiety is and what it isn’t. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, this is will be education on compassion for others as well as what to look out for in your family and friends.
If you have experienced social anxiety yourself, then likely you will find yourself saying “yes that’s me” or “finally, someone who understands.”
Mostly what I want you to take away from this post is that social anxiety can look different depending on who you are, but the underlying theme is still the same; yes it’s a diagnosable mental disorder, but in many cases, it’s actually one of the easiest to treat. The problem is that most people will never receive help. I don’t want that to be you.
Social Anxiety Symptoms
Social anxiety symptoms fall into three broad categories: cognitive (your thoughts), physical (feelings in your body), and behavioral (e.g., avoidance).
The cognitive symptoms of social anxiety are the negative thoughts that you have about social and performance situations.
In psychology, these are called “negative thinking patterns,” of which there are a variety of different types.
One example would be mind-reading, in which you think that you know what other people are thinking about you and assume the worst.
Physical symptoms of social anxiety and performance anxiety include shaking, blushing, sweating, nausea, shortness of breath, etc.
The behavioral symptoms of social anxiety are things like avoiding situations, not leaving the house, skipping class, or using “safety behaviors” in situations to avoid feeling anxious.
What Causes It?
In general, social anxiety is believed to result from a combination of factors, most notably your genetic predisposition as well as your life experiences.
If you have a relative who struggles with social anxiety, then you are more likely to also develop with social anxiety yourself (suggesting that there is a genetic component).
Life experiences such as neglect or abuse during childhood, bullying, new social demands and having a condition or appearance that draws attention are also known potential factors in developing social anxiety.
Types of Social Anxiety
Research has shown that there are four types of fears that people with social anxiety will generally have.
- Fear of others noticing your physical anxiety symptoms
- Fear of others discovering a character flaw
- Fear of others noticing your poor social skills
- Fear of others noticing something about your physical appearance.
In addition, when diagnosing social anxiety disorder, mental health professionals distinguish between general and specific social anxiety.
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A person with general social anxiety is fearful of a wide range of social and performance situations. On the other hand, a person with specific social anxiety only fears one specific type of situation: most often it is public speaking.
There is a surprising consistency in the types of situations that people with social anxiety avoid or endure with intense anxiety. Below are some examples:
- meeting new people
- making small talk
- talking to someone in authority
- being made the center of attention
- returning an item to a store
- eating in front of people
- writing in front of people
- giving a presentation
- expressing an opposite opinion
How Social Anxiety Affects Your Life
If you are living with social anxiety, it might have the following effects on your life:
- reaching milestones later in life (e.g., getting a job, finding a girlfriend/boyfriend)
- not finishing your education
- being under-employed
- not having friends or feeling like you don’t fit in with the friends that you have
- trouble being yourself or expressing your opinions
- in extreme cases, inability to leave the house, work or maintain relationships
(Watch the video below for 3 quick tips on how to beat social anxiety)
When to See a Professional for a Diagnosis
How do you know if you should see a mental health professional? If you feel as though social or performance anxiety is interfering with your daily life, then that is a good sign. Social anxiety disorder is the third most common mental health condition, but it is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed, or missed altogether.
In order to be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, you will be assessed according to the criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). If you wish to obtain a diagnosis, you’ll typically need a referral to a mental health professional from your primary care doctor.
Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder
Treatment for social anxiety disorder generally involves taking medication, receiving talk therapy, or a combination of the two. The good news is that these treatments have been shown to be effective, and take weeks to months to work as opposed to years.
Overcoming Social Anxiety
Beyond receiving help from a professional, there are things you can do on your own to help in the process of overcoming social anxiety. These fall under the umbrella of both prevention and of coping skills.
Prevention of Social Anxiety
In terms of preventing social anxiety from happening, many of the things that promote good mental health will also help to prevent social anxiety. Below are some prevention habits to adopt.
Use caffeine and alcohol in moderation. Caffeine can worsen anxiety, and alcohol can become a crutch that you use (and if you quit using, will leave you more anxious than before)
Practice healthy habits like getting regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and doing things to calm yourself down like meditation, diffusing essential oil, etc.
Coping with Social Anxiety
Finally, below are some coping strategies to help you manage social or performance anxiety.
- use cognitive-behavioral methods to manage worrying and rumination
- use breathing exercises to calm down in the moment
- practice relaxation exercises like progressive muscle relaxation
- develop social skills so you feel more confident going into situations
- purposely face the things you fear (gradually) instead of avoiding them
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Related Articles about Social Anxiety
- Best Books about Mindfulness for Social Anxiety
- 11 Types of Thinking That Worsen Social Anxiety
- Best Apps to Use for Social Anxiety
- Take the Social Anxiety Quiz