While many people are looking forward to a summer of outings, gatherings and socializing, others may be experiencing some social anxiety at the thought of heading back out into the world. Due to COVID-19, most of us were indoors for the greater part of 2020 and 2021. But as vaccination rates continue to increase, governments are relaxing restrictions and businesses are beginning to reopen to the public. Though we are still being cautious, many people are now able to visit restaurants, bars, gyms and sports venues after more than a year of lockdowns.
While some are excited at the prospect of life going “back to normal” and being able to visit friends, attend events and socialize, others may feel reluctant about heading back out into the world after so much time at home. This reluctance may be because of concerns about the pandemic itself, or you may have gotten so accustomed to life at home that going out now feels strange.
For others, the prospect of being invited to gatherings and events brings on a feeling of anxiety due to the social expectations. If these feelings of fear and anxiety start to affect your ability to function in your daily life, you may be dealing with social anxiety disorder.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is a common mental health condition that affects more than 15 million Americans. Though many people develop it in adolescence, it can easily continue to affect you in adulthood if not properly addressed.
Social anxiety disorder is an intense and often debilitating fear of being judged or rejected in a social setting or a performance-based scenario. People dealing with social phobia may feel anxious about being seen in public or having to socialize with others. Common thoughts include a fear of being perceived as awkward, boring or stupid to peers or even strangers. As a result of these fears, you may avoid social settings such as dates, parties or dinners with friends or colleagues. For some people, social anxiety extends into work-related settings and can affect your ability to perform in job interviews, performance evaluations, presentations or meetings. For others, social anxiety can affect their ability to go to the gym or go for a run outside, for fear of being watched or judged by others.
When symptoms persist for at least six months and affect your daily life and activities, it may be time to speak to a mental health professional to address the symptoms.
Is social anxiety the same as shyness?
Most people will experience shyness at some point in their lives and it’s easy to conflate this with social anxiety because they can be quite similar. Shyness is very common in childhood and adolescence as we develop social skills and become more comfortable with our bodies and ourselves. By adulthood, most people would have outgrown this shyness or developed coping strategies to enable them to push through the shyness and form meaningful relationships with the people around them.
Social anxiety is characterized by intense and extreme symptoms that can impair your ability to function in your daily life. People with social anxiety often go as far as avoiding social situations altogether, causing them to miss out on important opportunities for personal or professional growth. Those with social anxiety disorder may lose sleep due to their intense feelings about an upcoming social situation and often experience physical symptoms such as a racing heart, shortness of breath or sweating.
If you are isolating yourself on a consistent basis due to fear or anxiety, or if the anxiety is preventing you from living the life you want, you may be dealing with a disorder, as opposed to just shyness.
What are the signs/symptoms of social anxiety disorder?
Social anxiety disorder often manifests in both physical and psychological symptoms. When placed in a social setting, you may begin blushing, sweating or may experience an increased heart rate. Other common physical symptoms include clammy palms, nausea and an inability to project your voice.
Your mind may begin racing, or it may go completely blank. Social anxiety can also result in feelings of embarrassment, self-consciousness or insecurity. You may be overly critical of the things you say and do and how these things will be perceived by others. When your fears and feelings of anxiety cause you to avoid social activities on a regular basis, this is one of the clearest signs of social anxiety disorder.
During a screening for social phobia, your clinician may ask questions such as:
- Do you have an extreme fear of looking silly or awkward to others?
- Do you avoid activities where you might be the center of attention?
- Is it difficult for you to relax in social settings?
- Do you avoid situations that require you to be sociable?
Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder
The good news is that treatment for social anxiety disorder is available and effective. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular treatment options due to its short treatment time and effectiveness. CBT teaches you to challenge the racing thoughts that cause you to become anxious in social settings. For example, you can learn to realize that at the gym, people are too focused on their own workout and body to be judging you. As you learn to reframe your thinking, you can slowly become more comfortable in these settings.
Exposure therapy is another effective treatment option for social anxiety. This is when you gradually work yourself up to the situations you fear the most by starting out with less challenging situations. For example, you can start by eating alone in public to teach yourself that nobody is watching or judging you as you eat. As you become more comfortable, you can work your way up to being able to go out with a friend to eat and then a small group.
Based on your unique challenges, a mental health professional will be able to work with you to find the best treatment plan. The clinicians at Flourish Psychology are trained to help treat a variety of mental health challenges, including social anxiety disorder. Schedule your first session with a therapist who can help you to live your best social life.