Social situations tend to make many of us anxious. Some of us find meeting people a challenge. Walking into a place where there are people we don’t know makes us uncomfortable. It is common to try to work around these uncomfortable situations in order to survive in the world.
Anxiety can prevent us from taking part in social activities. It can cause us to have problems at work or keep us from going to gatherings. When we are missing out, it is high time to take a close look at our anxiety and the social phobia it is causing in order to better understand it and to better enable us to get help.
When Social Anxiety Becomes a Disorder
The more you know about a problem, the easier it is to find a solution. The same is true with social anxiety and the disorder behind it. Learning more about the diagnosis of it and what it entails will help you assess your symptoms so you can determine whether seeking mental health assistance is advisable. In the fifth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or, DSM-5), Social Anxiety Disorder is described as:
“Marked anxiety or fear having to do with a social situation, or situations, where the individual is exposed to the possibility of being scrutinized by others. It might be brought on by something like a conversation with another person or persons, meeting new people, being observed when drinking, eating or something similar, and/or performing or speaking in front of others such as giving a speech.”
In children, the anxiety must be brought on in a setting that is pure rather than just when they are interacting with adults.
The individual has anxiety and fear of acting in a certain way or of showing the symptoms of anxiety in a fashion that will be viewed negatively such as being embarrassed or humiliated which will ultimately lead to being rejected by or offending others.
The situations are typically socially oriented and almost always instigated by anxiety or fear. It is common for children to express their anxiety and fear through crying, freezing, clinging, throwing tantrums or not speaking when they are in social situations.
Social situations which provoke negative emotions are either endured with great anxiety and fear or avoided altogether. The degree of anxiety or fear is exaggerated in comparison to the threat that’s posed from the situation or the socio-cultural context. Generally, the individual experiences the anxiety and/or fear for a period of six months or longer.
The negative feelings of anxiety or fear or the action of avoidance bring on significant clinical distress or the inability to function properly in the individual’s occupation, social life or another important area. It’s important to note that the avoidance is not brought about by drugs, illicit or prescription.
If there is a medical condition that exists (like Parkinson’s disease, disfigurement from injury or burns, obesity or such) the problem is only classified as social anxiety if it is not caused by the medical problems or if it is in extreme excess.
Self-diagnosing is not wise when you are concerned if you have a mental disorder just as it is not advisable to self-diagnose when wondering about medical problems. It is imperative to be certain that you are given the correct diagnosis and, if warranted, the right treatment as well. It is recommended that you incorporate time with a therapist to ensure you get the proper diagnosis.
Rekindling Our Bodily Connection
Anxiety is never comfortable. That is why our natural reaction is to get as far as we can away from it. We do whatever we can in order to avoid feeling it. The problem is that this type of reaction is counterproductive to the diagnosing of the problem and to successful treatment. With this in mind, the next time you feel anxiety creeping in, try to turn to it instead of away from it. Acknowledge your feeling. Don’t hide from it.
It is also helpful to approach it with curiosity. Ask yourself where you are feeling it. Perhaps it is in your stomach, or the area around your chest or in your neck. Sometimes, tingling fingers or hands accompany fear and anxiety.
Try to get a grip on it through taking deep, controlled breaths. Breathe in through your nose and then out slowly through your mouth, counting to three. Once you have completed the deep breathing exercise, attempt to figure out what the trigger is.
There are times the trigger will be obvious. You may suddenly recall that you are about to go to a party where there will be a number of people you don’t know. Or, it may seemingly come out of nowhere. It is a good idea to ask yourself where it came from anytime your anxiety or anger rises suddenly. Even if you don’t have the answer, you will be taking a step toward your recovery.
Our mind, body, and emotions are all interconnected which means there can be a myriad of possibilities when it comes to causes for our anxieties, social ones included. It is a defense mechanism that we develop early on to deal with traumatic experiences. We naturally defend ourselves against further harm and protect ourselves from the pain as well.
Imagine you are in a dark room full of furniture. You can’t see the furniture so you continue to bump into it time after time. A therapist helps you to identify and understand the triggers you have, much like illuminating the furniture, one piece at a time.
When you can clearly see the furniture, the less likely you are to run into it as much and when you happen to, you know just what you ran into. Throughout the course of time, you may even decide to move the furniture elsewhere rather than it being in the middle of the room where you easily bump into it.
Understanding Social Anxiety
It is conducive to have a range to work with when we are trying to get a handle on our anxieties in social situations. When you note that it is rising, assign it a suitable number. “I feel my anxiety is at a 7 on a scale where 10 is the highest,” you may tell yourself. If you find your anxiety is in the 7-and-over range much of the time, it would be a wise idea to set up a meeting with a qualified therapist.
If you leave high anxiety unchecked, you can condition your body to be chronically anxious. That is why there are some disorders of anxiety that only get better with medication.
When you have identified the degree of your level of anxiety, the next thing you will want to do is to make an attempt to lower it by using the tools you have at your disposal. When our anxiety is soaring, it is very difficult to think with a clear head and deep breathing can be helpful at times like this. It sends a signal to your sympathetic nervous area (the system that deals with fight or flight) that it is alright to be calm as there is no danger.
While you are doing deep and slow breathing, you can try to think and focus on just one thing. It might be a smooth stone, a waterfall or a word. Since our minds can only handle thinking about one thing at a time, it becomes impossible to dwell on the fear at hand when we are thinking about a stone or waterfall. Initially, it may be difficult to do because we feel as if we are thinking of a million things at once, but in reality, our minds are just racing with many thoughts coming at us, one by one.
Controlling our focus is the key to stopping the circus. It takes some practice but it can be done. When you think of positive things about yourself, you will find that your anxiousness subsides. A good bit of the worry we have is based on things that are not true. You may feel God is going to punish you for something or that you are going to get a disease. Think of fears you had in the past that never came to pass. That is very helpful in recognizing the unwarranted fears.
Putting your thoughts and feelings into perspective is helpful too. Since there are millions of things that have the ability to kill you, you can see how it is a complete wasting of your time to try to figure out which of those things you will die from. Living in the here and now means not being obsessed with the past or the future. Now is all we have anyway so, why not chose to live in it?
It will be easier to think clearly when your anxiety has subsided and is under control. That is the time to think about the root of your social anxiety. Know the difference between normal anxiety and anxiety that is not typical. If you are at odds with someone and are nervous about running into them, that is normal. But, if you fear to encounter anyone, that is not.
What is it that scares you about the given situation? Do you worry that you will not know what to do or say and will look foolish? Are you afraid you will say something but it won’t be appropriate? Do you fear you will fall or break something and look clumsy?
In each one of the cases mentioned, fear is the underlying factor. You are afraid of looking foolish or like a jerk. You are afraid that you will be rejected or hated. While the fear is not legitimate because it is exaggerated, it certainly feels true. Until you take it by the horns. Realize that one of the greatest fears humans have is abandonment. Do you fear you will be left alone?
The stakes seem incredibly high when social anxiety tells that you will do or say something so bad that you’ll be hated, despised or abandoned. But when you start to understand more about the situation, you can make a plan and have a way out. You can control and manage your situation and fight the lies that you have let yourself believe.
Managing Social Anxiety
There are many experiences when it comes to anxiety and everyone is different. It is not possible to address each possible situation so I will be using a few vignettes with various examples of possibilities for the approaches. These are generalized in order to hopefully paint a picture that many can imagine themselves in.
First Vignette – A twenty-eight-year-old male is employed at a large company where there are no inside walls and the individual desks are grouped. Each person in the area views and contributes to everyone’s work. One day, the man walks into the area and his heart begins to race. He feels like he is getting dizzy and reaches to steady himself. He gets out of the building as quickly as he can and the thought of ever going back paralyzes him with overwhelming anxiety.
Approach Possibilities – When there is a symptom of dizziness or any form of chest pains, it is certainly recommended that a physician is consulted in order to rule out any medical causes. If medical causes are ruled out, then you can look further into the root.
One thing to check into is if anyone he is not comfortable with moving in closer to his proximity. Has the work he has been doing been brought into the spotlight and he has been ignoring it to where it has become an insurmountable anxiety? Perhaps the close quarters in his work setting is finally closing in on him. Is there anything about the area of his workspace that has undergone change or has any of the relationships changed?
If all environmental factors have been ruled out, it could very well boil down to a psychodynamic contributor, like having an overly critical father or mother who continually made him feel belittled. While this issue is one that can take some time to really work through, there are short-term solutions that can temporarily help to boost his self-confidence.
This is where the tools mentioned above could really help to calm anxiousness in the moment. Focusing on one single thing could be very helpful. If the given anxiety has continued for over six months, it might not respond to somatic techniques in which case, a visit with a qualified psychiatrist might be in order to talk about the possibility of an anti-anxiety prescription. Persistence and patience when pursuing a diagnosis is the best route to getting the best care possible.
Second Vignette – A thirty-something-year-old female always has anxiety creep up when she is in public, but one night when she is at a party where she doesn’t know hardly anyone, she gets so anxious that she has to flee the party.
Approach Possibilities – Like the man in the first vignette, the manifestation of chest pains or dizziness is a good indication a doctor should be seen as a first step.
If leaving the party helped to calm her, it might be of help to rule out the environmental factors that could have possibly been present. Asking if there was anything in the room that seemed to be threatening in some familiar way is a good place to start. Smells can initiate triggers too. Was there a smell that could have triggered an old trauma response emotionally?
Perhaps someone vocalized something that triggered the response. Maybe there was a person who appeared to be familiar but who she couldn’t seem to place and that mentally distressed her. And, there might be a person who had a similarity to someone within her past who was threatening.
Environmental factors should be ruled out and psychodynamic roots can be addressed and looked into too. Taking steps of desensitization may well be the most helpful answer so that she doesn’t have to avoid going to parties for months or even years.
The first thing she might attempt is to go to another party in order to see if the problem is a recurring one. Then, she could try meeting a stranger and a friend together. Then she could be around one friend and five or so strangers at once.
As she does this, she should monitor her anxiety level and also watch for triggers. She can then begin to get in touch with the level of her anxiety and can work to develop solutions for workarounds and also to address the specific issues she has.
While there are common factors, everyone’s individual anxiety is different. It is something that is unique to them and only them. It takes courage and it takes determination to face fears and to wonder about them so we can reduce anxiety by developing and using techniques.
If anxiety is disrupting your life, it is time to get help so you can explore your thoughts and feelings. Getting help will help you take steps toward a life of growth and better health. You can be free.
“Anxious,” courtesy of Sascha Berner, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Thinking,” courtesy of Jacob Botter, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Stretch,” courtesy of Jacob Postuma, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Alejandra thinking II,” courtesy of Luis Alejandro Bernal Romeo, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY-SA 2.0)