What is social anxiety?
Everyone will experience shyness or anxiety at some point in their lives when faced with a social situation. However, for some people, these feelings can become overwhelming and begin to have a serious impact on their day-to-day life. Social anxiety is one of the most common forms of anxiety and is experienced by men and women of all ages. So what is social anxiety and what causes it?
Do I have social anxiety?
It isn’t always easy to tell whether you’re experiencing usual feelings of shyness or nerves, or whether you might be suffering from social anxiety. To give you a better idea, here’s a list of common emotional, physical and behavioural symptoms of social anxiety. Do you regularly experience any of these when faced with a social situation?
- Your body: Sweating, dry mouth, blushing, tense muscles, nausea, tight chest, dizziness, panicky, pounding heart, jumpy, urge to go to the toilet.
- Your feelings: Frightened, worried you may embarrass yourself, wanting to leave, thinking others are judging you, thinking others won’t like you, thinking things will go badly, feeling negative about yourself, continuing to worry about the social situation once it’s over.
- Your behaviour: Avoiding social situations or feeling very distressed or anxious if you do take part in them, avoiding phone calls, drinking or smoking more than usual in social situations, planning your exit, avoiding eye contact, talking more or less than normal, frequenting the toilets, rehearsing what you’ll say, staying close to someone you know, wearing makeup to hide blushing, wearing layers to hide sweating.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, then you may be suffering from social anxiety. People who suffer from social anxiety are usually worried about what people will think of them, or whether people like them. A lot of these behavioural symptoms are called ‘safety behaviours’ and are used to make an individual feel more comfortable or safe in scary social situations.
What causes social anxiety?
People can experience social anxiety in all manner of situations. Some people may feel nervous in crowds, whilst others find one-on-one conversations frightening. Some people might hate standing up and giving presentations, whilst others may hate eating in front of people. Some feel uncomfortable around strangers, whilst others feel uncomfortable around people they know. Social anxiety is often rooted in low self-esteem. However, it can also stem from previous negative social experiences, or distressing experiences such as bullying or abuse. Most social anxiety begins during adolescence and can sometimes run in families. However, no one knows for sure what causes it. Social anxiety can also be associated with other mental health issues and disabilities such as depression, ADHD or autism.
Many people grow out of their social anxiety. However, for others it can go on for years and becomes a vicious circle that’s very hard to break. What are some common reasons for this?
- Long-term negative beliefs: If someone has experienced social anxiety for years, they may begin to develop beliefs that they are bad in social situations or lack social skills, thus maintaining their anxiety.
- Avoidance of social situations: Social anxiety may result in someone avoiding the situations that make them feel anxious. This means they don’t learn how to cope in social situations causing their fear to increase over time.
- Negative self image: Not only do people with social anxiety often view themselves negatively, they may think others have a negative impression of them too. They therefore jump to their own conclusions about what people are thinking and fail to challenge their own self-esteem issues.
- Fear of fear: If people have previously experienced social anxiety, they may begin to predict how they’ll feel in a social situation before it happens. By worrying about how they’ll cope, they increase their anxiety and therefore create the symptoms they’re scared of. This then strengthens their fear. ○ Looking back negatively: People with social anxiety may find themselves going back over previous social situations and critiquing how they behaved or how others responded to them. This can reinforce anxiety.
Social anxiety may seem impossible to overcome, but understanding how it is caused and how it affects us is the first step in learning how to tackle it.