- Social anxiety disorder is not simply being shy or introverted; it is a mental health condition.
- The pandemic has worsened social anxiety for many, especially for young people, and the holidays may also have a negative effect.
- Symptoms of social anxiety can be reduced using techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness practices.
Social anxiety disorder is not simply being shy or introverted; it is a mental health condition that affects at least 7 percent of the U.S. population. The pandemic has worsened social anxiety for many, especially young people, affecting approximately 9-10 percent of adolescents and young adults. This is due to a variety of factors, such as being more socially isolated during the pandemic, pandemic-induced weight gain, health anxiety about being close to others, and simply being out of practice. About 12.1 percent of Americans will suffer from a social anxiety disorder at some point during their lifetimes.
In my clinical practice and through national webinars and speaking engagements across industries, I’ve found that many if not most of us have been experiencing some aspects of social anxiety during the pandemic, even if we don’t meet all the criteria for a formal diagnosis. The National Alliance on Mental Illness noted that 64 percent of individuals living with a mental illness felt that their conditions worsened around the holidays, so social anxiety is worse during the holiday season, with many expectations for gathering with others for celebrations.
Signs of social anxiety
- Fear, dread, or worry about a social event or setting
- Fear of humiliation, embarrassment, or social rejection
- Fear of being judged, criticized, or scrutinized
- Intense self-consciousness or feelings of inadequacy or shame
- Tendencies to avoid social situations or to self-medicate with food, drugs, or alcohol
- Emotional distress and discomfort during social interactions that may lead to crying, shutting down, lashing out, panic attacks, etc.
- Cognitive symptoms, such as ruminating or racing thoughts, negative or catastrophic thinking, overwhelm or difficulty thinking clearly or making decisions
- Physical symptoms, such as headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleep or appetite disturbance, psychomotor agitation (like fidgeting or tics), or psychomotor retardation (feeling frozen, stiff, or tense)
The impact of social anxiety
Social anxiety can impact ourselves and our loved ones in the following ways:
- Impairment in functioning in interpersonal relationships: This may include disconnection, misunderstandings, poor communication, conflict avoidance, and interpersonal challenges at home and at work. In my practice, I often see social anxiety lead to relationship conflict, such as a parent trying to encourage their child to be more social or marital distress when one partner is very extraverted and is energized by interpersonal interaction while the other dreads dinner parties and social gatherings because of social anxiety.
- Low feelings of self-worth: Social anxiety can cause a downward spiral of feelings of inadequacy that impair confidence, self-acceptance, and self-esteem.
- Decrease in job or academic performance: Social anxiety can lead to absenteeism, tardiness, avoidance of tasks or opportunities that would lead to growth and development, and lack of assertiveness, self-advocacy, or negotiation. This can have serious consequences on someone’s career success and financial health.
- Loneliness and depression: Social anxiety can lead to having fewer friends, less strong relationships, difficulty with dating, and can breed isolation that fuels depression, substance abuse, and other behavioral health problems.
Tips for managing social anxiety
Social anxiety occurs when we project our own feelings of insecurity and inadequacy onto others and imagine that is the way they see us and feel about us. We may believe others are to blame, but truthfully, nobody can make us feel bad about ourselves without our permission. Recovery from social anxiety starts with working on our relationship with ourselves. Here are some strategies to cope:
- Silence your inner saboteur. We all have an inner saboteur—a critical voice in our head that comes from previous life experiences, past relationships, or cultural or religious teachings and judges us harshly and puts us down. Negative and critical self-talk fuels social anxiety. Use techniques from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) such as thought records to restructure negative thoughts and irrational beliefs into neutral or positive thinking. Consider naming your inner saboteur and cultivating mindful awareness of when it pops up and how it exacerbates your social anxiety. Realize you have the power to detach from this self-harm by practicing these techniques.
- Relate to yourself as your own loving parent, best friend, and positive coach. Counter the impact of your inner critic by becoming your own loving parent (practicing good self-care, such as proper nutrition, exercise, and rest and moderating substance use), best friend (practicing self-compassion, cutting yourself some slack, and having your own back), and positive coach (practicing self-affirmation and encouraging positive growth and development). Recognize that you have the choice to be your own worst critic or most compassionate advocate.
- Access support. Move past stigma and recognize we all have mental health issues as part of the human condition. Consider seeking counseling or therapy, participating in a support group, or talking with your doctor to see if medication like a mild antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication would be helpful for you. Share openly with friends and family about your social anxiety and ask for the help and support you need (a friend to come with you to an appointment or party or a wingman to go to a singles event).
- Visualize success. Anxiety involves catastrophic worries and fears about the future, like anticipating the worst-case scenarios. Be mindful of writing fiction about embarrassing events that will likely never occur and use CBT techniques such as thought-stopping to curb them. Replace these fears with positive visualizations of you feeling relaxed and confident at a job interview or family gathering. Just like in sports psychology, visualizing success increases the likelihood of a positive outcome because you are harnessing the power of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Expand your comfort zone. Practice exposure therapy so you can learn to manage social anxiety. Develop a reward system for yourself when you successfully push past your social anxiety, such as rewarding yourself with time for your favorite hobby or self-care practice.
You are worth addressing your social anxiety so you can blossom into the best version of yourself and welcome the abundant life you deserve.
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