Social anxiety is more than just occasional nerves.
Social anxiety definition: the NHS defines social anxiety as ‘A fear that does not go away and affects everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life.’1
These situations could be something specific, such as eating in public.
They could also be something more general like making new friends, socialising, talking in front of a group, speaking up during a meeting or even talking on the phone.
Feeling a flutter of nerves isn’t unusual when faced with a stereotypically ‘scary’ social situation like a job interview, presentation, ceremony or first date. Feeling mildly nervous in situations like these is perfectly normal and doesn’t necessarily mean you have social anxiety.
For example, the following can trigger social anxiety:
For people with social anxiety, even just thinking about some of these tasks can trigger an upsetting narrative in your head. For example, you may start imagining the potential worst-case scenario for the above situations.
Simply thinking about a social or public situation may also trigger negative self-talk, such as that ‘nobody wants me there’ or telling yourself you’re stupid for being afraid. Difficult as it may be to believe, these are all symptoms of social anxiety and do not mean that your fears are in any way founded.
There are things you can do to help alleviate your social anxiety. In some cases, people with social anxiety see a great improvement in their confidence and ability to handle social situations without those nasty symptoms rearing their heads.
However, social anxiety treatment isn’t a quick fix by any means. Just as the development of social anxiety doesn’t happen in an instant, you can’t magic it away overnight.One of the best-studied and most-recommended treatments for social anxiety is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This is a type of talking therapy which helps people examine their negative patterns of thinking and challenge these patterns before they become a vicious cycle of negative thoughts.4 If you’re ready, CBT is a practical way to help manage social anxiety and has produced some excellent results in studies.5 6 7 After the initial assessment period, you'll start working with your therapist to break down problems into their separate parts. To help with this, your therapist may ask you to keep a diary or write down your thought and behaviour patterns.8
Other methods you can try to help with social anxiety:
Often breaking the ice is the most difficult part, and once you’ve actually begun communicating with people, it gets easier.
Nobody will think less of you, and it can actually be a good way to bond with someone as they may be feeling nervous, too.
In the short term, people can be fooled into thinking alcohol works very well against social anxiety. A drink might seem to offer confidence and melt away those fears that were preventing you from enjoying your social experience.However, this is an illusory technique. All alcohol does is artificially lower your inhibitions and give you less control over what you do and say. To someone with social anxiety, this is sure to lead to extra worry the next day.9
Think of confidence like a muscle. It needs to be built up slowly but surely. Using alcohol as a crutch means you’ll never develop your social muscle and give it the chance to be as strong as it could be.
However, avoiding the situations which make us anxious won’t help your recovery.
Putting ourselves in a situation that causes serious worry, anxiety or panic can be an incredibly uncomfortable experience. But avoiding them completely, while effective in the short term, will simply reinforce the belief that these situations are something to be afraid of.Getting gradual exposure to situations that make us afraid is the way to go.10
Don’t underestimate baby steps. You don’t have to suddenly be the life and soul of the party or be able to run a meeting without breaking a sweat.
To start with, try low-risk moves such as:
It’s advised by the NHS to speak to your GP if you think you might be experiencing social anxiety disorder. You may be certain that you have it based on your symptoms, but only a GP or mental health professional can diagnose you properly.
Last updated: 31 July 2020
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6447508/ 3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627045/ 4 https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/ 5 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3016703/ 6 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10846306/ 7 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4610618/ 8 https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/how-it-works/ 9 https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder/social-anxiety-and-alcohol-abuse 10 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6594210/