Social Anxiety

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Chances are you or someone you know suffers from social anxiety. The statistics around this mental illness are pretty significant, with more than fifteen million people struggling – almost 7% of the world’s population.

Social anxiety is a serious affliction where individuals experience intense distress in social situations due to concerns of being criticized or judged by others. Social anxiety is much more than introversion or shyness, as it significantly impacts daily functioning.

Causes of Social Anxiety

Although the exact cause of social anxiety is unknown, there are some general common assumptions about what may cause a person to be more susceptible to this difficult disorder such as one’s inherited traits, environment, or brain makeup.

Inherited traits

Social anxiety, like any anxiety disorder, tends to run in families. Yet it could be argued that this is because behaviors are learned within families, rather than passed down genetically.

Environment

Social anxiety could possibly be a learned behavior, which means you have observed the anxious behavior of those around you.

Brain Make-up

The part of the brain used to control your fear response is called the amygdala. Those who have an overactive amygdala most likely experience an increased fear response, creating heightened anxiety

If you suffer from extreme shyness or social anxiety, your life has most likely been greatly impacted and there is a good chance you have experienced some of the below-mentioned symptoms.

Anxiety Symptoms

Feeling Alienated

Not only from group situations like get-togethers or social events, but also from your closest friends and family members. Because social anxiety often creates a feeling of “not fitting in” it is sometimes easier to isolate. This frequently turns into a vicious cycle as the more you isolate the more you become alienated.

Becoming Attached

To the people you do feel comfortable around (which is typically very few). Because of the isolative nature of social anxiety, you may find yourself trying to get your needs met through the people close to you, often forming an intense emotional attachment. This can be especially problematic if you have social anxiety, as the attachment is not always reciprocal, resulting in hurt feelings, and often negative self-talk.

Panic Attack

When thinking about upcoming social events, or even routine errands, like going to the grocery store, feelings of apprehension and fear typically arise. These panicky feelings often evolve into full-blown panic attacks, evidenced by elevated heart rate, dizziness, chest pain, sweating, and even numbness.

Self-Criticism

Picture yourself trying to fall asleep at night and going over the day’s events and what tomorrow may bring. You probably ask yourself questions like “what mistakes did I make today?” “What did people think of me?” “Who do I have to see tomorrow?” “How will I get through the day?”   Socially anxious people evaluate and review their interactions and anticipate what is to come. They critique what they have done “wrong”. This intense condemnation only drives the social anxiety.

Lack of Energy

If you tend to anticipate and mentally prepare for every potential social interaction you may have to have, then chances are you are exhausted. Having social anxiety is a real energy-sucker, both mentally and physically speaking.

Physically Tense

The constant worry that accompanies extreme shyness and social anxiety often creates considerable muscle tension; socially anxious individuals often experience on-going discomfort, including a clenched jaw, a strained neck, or a stiff back.

Stomach Discomfort

Another physical symptom of social anxiety is stomach discomfort. Social anxiety or extreme shyness, just as with more generalized anxiety disorders, commonly causes digestive problems. These digestive issues often turn into irritable bowel syndrome.

Dealing With Social Anxiety

If you already struggle with social anxiety, or suffer from the above-mentioned symptoms, then you probably know that many things can trigger increased worry and concern. Yet what you might find surprising is that for this generation, social media is one of the biggest triggers to social anxiety. Everyone is so connected in this day and age (thanks to social media), meaning when sites like Facebook or Instagram are inaccessible, many people experience a heightened sense of unease.

While individuals who do not suffer from social anxiety may still experience increased worry if social media is unreachable, it tends to be less impactful for them. This is a stark contrast to those who are socially anxious, as people who have social anxiety tend to use social media as their sole social outlet; thus when they are without it, the tendency to feel completely cut off from the outside world prevails.

Feeling fully isolated and alone is common to those who struggle with this disorder, and if you are one of these people, chances are you have felt alone as well. Regardless of the statistics around social anxiety, you may still have difficulty identifying anyone in your life with whom you can directly relate. Thankfully, numerous celebrities have used their popularity to speak out about this debilitating disorder, providing an opportunity for others to connect with them. Some of these celebrities include:

  • Dr. Dre
  • Johnny Depp
  • Emma Stone
  • Scarlett Johannson
  • Adele
  • Barbra Streisand
  • Jennifer Lawrence
  • Kim Basinger

No, you may never have the opportunity to swap stories about your social anxiety with any of these celebrities. However, simply recognizing these individuals have suffered with social anxiety and were still able to become successful, productive adults can be somewhat comforting and motivating. Still, it is crucial to remember that these celebrities most likely sought some sort of treatment to help them navigate their social anxiety.

Unfortunately, the inherent nature of extreme shyness and social anxiety make seeking treatment very difficult, as the fear of discussing struggles can be intense. This means many do not seek treatment. Thankfully, social anxiety is a very treatable disorder. So, if you do not want to continue living your life restricted by anxiety and apprehension, explore the many options that social anxiety is treated.

Treatment for Social Anxiety

Social Skills Training

Social skills’ training is focused on increasing confidence when meeting others, initiating conversations, and enhancing relationships. This approach typically starts with an assessment (by a mental health professional), which will record your struggles with interacting with others, including triggers, responses, and associated impairments.

Working with your therapist, you will create a treatment plan to address these struggles and explore different interventions to decrease the impact they have on your life. Role-playing (a method frequently used in social skills training), allows you to practice new social skills within a safe environment (your therapist’s office)

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring works off the idea that people suffer from “faulty thinking” which contributes to social anxiety and shyness. This intervention also posits that people have the ability to change this faulty thinking, thus improving their lives.

Cognitive restructuring is effective with social anxiety, as it investigates how changing your negative thought patterns could help you manage the inherent stressors that come with daily life. Using this approach, it is imperative to not just challenge the negative thought patterns, but also to change those thoughts through asking questions like, “will this truly hurt me?” or “what is the worst possible outcome?”

Cognitive restructuring involves on-going effort, but with persistence, you can change your previously negative thought patterns, alleviating the social anxiety or extreme shyness that has hindered you.

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy probably sounds pretty intimidating, especially for those who are anxious already. Yet this is a really great approach if you want to take care of your social anxiety quickly! In exposure therapy you will initially be guided (by a clinician) to visualize the dreaded event, situation, or circumstance.

Your therapist will then assist you in dealing with the resulting reactions you experience, both physical and emotional, by integrating new coping skills. Commonly, the next step of exposure therapy is to actually ‘expose’ you to that same situation or event you initially envisioned (of course, with the therapist’s support).

Exposure therapy is a powerful treatment, as it allows you (the person dealing with social anxiety) to recognize your ability to face your fear(s), and successfully overcome them. This treatment is a great confidence builder that can help you regain a sense of personal empowerment.

Groups

Group therapy for enables those with social anxiety to be around other people struggling with the same concern, which is comforting, and often helpful in itself. Group therapy often helps people view their struggle with social anxiety in a more normalized way. Yet group therapy also tackles more intricate aspects of this disorder, like the specific anxiety connected with being the center of attention. Behavioral exercises and process (talk therapy) groups are used to address these features of social anxiety in a group setting.

Medication

Medication is also a common approach to treating social anxiety. However, as with any medication, it is imperative for you to not only be aware of potential side effects, but also possess appropriate expectations about what the drug can do for your social anxiety. Medications recommended for social anxiety are not unlike medications used to treat more generalized anxiety disorders.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan, are mild sedatives, and are often used to reduce anxiety. This class of medications decreases anxiety by calming nerves and tension. Benzodiazepines are fast acting, and therefore beneficial for people to use in the case of an unplanned, anxiety-evoking event.

Beta-Blockers

Beta-blockers can be helpful for individuals with social anxiety, but they do not actually work on the mental part. Instead, beta-blockers work on the physical symptoms that are experienced during times of increased anxiety, such as increased blood pressure or shaking.

Buspirone

This drug is more commonly known by the name, Buspar. Buspar is a medication that has shown reasonable improvement for those with social anxiety. Buspar has been found to interact with other drugs, so checking this out with your doctor prior to starting this medication is essential.

Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)

SSRI’s are typically used to treat depression, yet recently they have gained popularity in the treatment of social anxiety. SSRIs affect the brain’s fear responses.