Updated: Nov 23, 2021
We all know the feeling of being uncomfortable, shy or nervous in a social situation.
Consequently, we may have clammed up when meeting someone new or suffered a racing heartbeat before making a big presentation.
Walking into a roomful of strangers or speaking in public is not exactly difficult for most people and they can get through it.
If we’re suffering from a social anxiety disorder, however, the stress of those situations is too much to handle. We possibly might even avoid any social contact because things like making small talk or maintaining eye contact make us too uncomfortable.
All aspects of our life, not just the social, may start to fall apart.
If you’ve lived with anxiety you will know how restricting it can be. I had found it almost impossible to control and do normal things in spite of the anxiety.
Sometimes when I shared with people about my anxiety, they liked to give me advice on how to fix it. I don’t doubt it was coming from a good place but often it was unhelpful because it felt judgemental.
For example, when people said just “push through in spite of the anxiety’, it sounds easy right? Like: “OK, so you're anxious but that doesn’t have to stop you from getting on with your life.”
Sometimes they were right, but often it was impossible.
There were times when I could step around the anxiety and crack on with what I need to get done. There were other times, however, when my symptoms were so intense that I couldn’t get out my front door, no matter how hard I was willing to try.
The problem is that pushing on through anxiety is exhausting. Having to endure the symptoms is physically demanding: racing heart, and thoughts, dizziness and sweating. Some days it was just too draining to push through.
Social anxiety disorder is currently one of the most common anxiety issues around. Around 6.8% of the population suffers and in the US this equates to 15 million people. Good to know we’re not alone!
What Are Social Anxiety Symptoms And What Do They Feel Like?
Social anxiety symptoms are different for everyone. But if you have social anxiety and you’re in a stressful situation, it might feel like some of these scenarios.
You worry a lot about making a fool of yourself in front of other people and feel very anxious before going into any of the social situations that worry you. You're unable to say, or do, the things you want to do because you go through, in great detail, all the embarrassing things that could happen to you.
Your idea of going out for dinner is to get a takeout or drive thru which you may eat in the car park afterwards. You may look through the restaurant windows and watch, enviously, how groups of people are sitting inside and enjoying eating their meal in company.
Your perfect evening is staying at home alone or with a film or losing yourself in social media. It’s easy to communicate on social media so you can escape talking to people directly. You may not understand why this is.
It’s like you’re always “forced” to attend a party because if you are introduced to someone, you can’t find the words to strike up a conversation. Still, you attempt to respond with short answers but you find that person soon looks for other, more interesting people to talk to. This makes you feel even more left out.
You only have 1-2 friends, don’t really want any more and don’t want new relationships of any kind. If they invite you to parties with others present, you invent excuses for not being able to attend. You only want to be with them when it is just the few of you, not when they invite other people too.
You take your lunch to work because you need an excuse not to go out to lunch with colleagues. You can wave your pack of sandwiches and make sure they can see that you’ll be staying at your desk for lunch.
You are unable to join in conversations around you even when you might have something good to add. The anxiety symptoms are not worth the need to feel included in the group chat.
You seem to be tired all the time because you're always stressed, not because you’ve been physically active or even depressed. Living with chronic anxiety is emotionally draining and sleeping is an escape.
You experience uncontrollable rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, dizziness, lightheadedness, stomach pains, diarrhea, inability to catch the breath, out-of-body sensations and heavy breathing when you are in uncomfortable social situations.
You ruminate 24/7 about your symptoms and then start having symptoms just thinking about how you may and getting anxious immediately before an event. Conversely you might spend weeks worrying about it. Afterwards you’re exhausted yet spend a lot of emotional and mental energy worrying about how you acted.
You are overwhelmed when there are more than just a few people in a room and find any way to remove yourself from the situation. You tune out when several people are speaking and you move into your mental comfort zone, which is where you are (at least temporarily) safe.
You are desperately concerned about your hair, your complexion, your dress and your look in general.
You engage in a lot of teeth grinding and jaw clenching and it’s completely unconscious.
You obsess over what you perceive as worst possible scenarios even though you know at some level that those things will probably never happen.
You get panic attacks when events immobilize you. This causes you to seek medical help when the real offender is your anxiety. There isn’t anything physically wrong with you even though you are convinced there is. Even when a doctor sees your anxiety issue and recommends a therapist who may be able to help you, you take this as an affront not a gesture of kindness because you are certain that you will be judged for your “weakness.”
You cannot think of anything to say on a date. Consequently, you don’t get asked out again only because the other person thinks you are just not interested. The thought of explaining about your social anxiety brings on enough panic to prevent you from pursuing any other relationships. This leads to thinking that you will never have a romantic relationship which creates more anxiety plus depression.
You're worried others may be able to see some of the signs of your anxiety - the blushing, stammering, shaking and trembling. These symptoms can be quite conspicuous and make your anxiety worse. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You worry so much about looking worried that you actually do look worried. Your worry is your worst enemy.
You panic when your phone rings at odd hours because you have anxiety about not being ready to talk to someone. Anyway, you won’t know what to say. If someone knocks on your door and you’re not prepared for the day, you’re positive that they’ll judge you so you can’t open the door to see what they want.
You have a difficult time explaining your anxiety to others even thought you desperately want them to understand you. This is because you think you're weak for suffering from severe anxiety and you’re frightened you're going to be judged or criticized.
You’re prone to isolation because then your anxiety won’t show. When you go into a restaurant you take a phone in which you can bury your head and look busy so that other people wont disturb you.
This spreads out to your social life where you turn down invitations to socialize because you can’t bear to be with other people. Eventually, friends stop asking you to join the party and this strengthens your belief that you are not liked.
Your social life is built around family members who know your ways and tend to ignore your needs to isolate and work around your anxiety symptoms. Family members feel safe and have long since stopped trying to change you or try to make things better. But, if a sibling brings in a new partner, you will move away and go and talk to other siblings or your parents.
You feel safer with a pet, usually a dog or a cat, than you do with people. You can cuddle and care for a cat or a dog and tell it all your troubles. You may have a strong emotional attachment to the pet that you just don’t get have people.
You avoid holidays or travelling unless it’s with ‘safe’ friends or family. This is because if other people are thrown in the mix, like being on a group tour or a cruise, strangers you “clam up,” unable to enjoy their company.
You may recognize someone you know who’s walking across the road but because you don’t know what to say, you go out of your way to avoid him or her. If, by chance they do see you, you keep the chat short and check your phone then explain you have to get to an appointment and must go.
How To Get Help With Your Social Anxiety Symptoms
One of the best ways to recover from social anxiety is by taking up Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioural therapy is talking therapies that can help you manage your problems by changing the way you think and behave.
Because social anxiety is tied up very closely with our thoughts we have about ourselves, the world and the people around us, we can make ourselves anxious by the way that we think about things.
This treatment helps us to change the way that we think about ourselves and other people. The therapist will help us to be aware of unhelpful rules, assumptions or predictions that we regularly use and the physical sensations we get when they go through our mind.
For example, take the situation when a chat dries up; if we have a social anxiety, we will probably to think it’s our fault and we may have the automatic belief that we never have anything to say. We might then start to feel anxious.
In CBT, the therapist will try to help us to be aware that it is just as likely that the other person has run out of things to say. This is a more realistic and less worrying way of thinking about the situation. The therapist will help us to test these ideas out in our day-to-day life.
We can then start to focus on how other people are actually reacting to us, rather than our imaginary version of how they are. For instance, the therapist could ask us to talk while thinking to ourselves that we actually appear very intelligent and amusing.
After a few minutes we would stop and try again, this time concentrating on how the therapist is reacting to us rather than what we are thinking.