Here it comes again. That anxiety is bubbling up inside you. It’s always triggered by the same event. For example, it could be sparked off by those presentations you have to make at work, or those formal festive gatherings you are required to attend. You’d give your right arm to avoid them. You can’t help feeling you’re being judged and poorly evaluated by the people around you. It’s all so irrational, but the fear and worry are real – so much so that you’d much rather avoid the occasion altogether than risk feeling exposed or ridiculed. These inexplicable bouts of anxiety come and go, depending on what’s going on around you.
If this sounds familiar to you, you might be suffering from social anxiety. So far, you may have opted to keep it all under wraps, possibly out of embarrassment or fear of ridicule. If so, you may be relieved to hear that social anxiety is experienced by almost half of people, to a greater or lesser degree, at one time or another during their lifetime.
Indeed, social anxiety can happen to anyone and, in the present world of ever-changing, ever-expanding technological communication and online competition, it is no wonder that many of us are experiencing a tide of loneliness and a growing sense of apprehension. In essence, instead of making us feel connected and liberated, today’s frenetic levels of communication and networking may be having the opposite effect, leaving us feeling constricted and suffocated.
Thoughts of not being socially viable, of not being able to keep up with the crowd, are becoming increasingly intrusive, and there may be a constant niggling fear of missing out, or ‘FOMO’ as it is generally known. Interestingly, if you were born between 1981 and 1996, you are a ‘millennial’ and your generation is marked by the sudden rapid increase in the use of new media and digital technologies, making you even more susceptible to social anxiety. But regardless of age, those of us who are not naturally very socially inclined, especially the more introverted amongst us, are facing a crisis of not knowing how to deal with this highly competitive age of hyper-connectivity and hyper social activity.
Is it Shyness or Social Anxiety?
There are different levels of social anxiety, depending on frequency, duration, severity and reason. If you want to find out more about where you stand on this spectrum, it’s useful to first distinguish social anxiety from shyness or introversion at one end, and anxiety disorder at the other end of the scale.
Shyness usually manifests as a moderate to mild sense of discomfort or awkwardness, particularly in social contexts. Crucially, unlike people suffering from social anxiety, shy people are usually able to overcome their unease, managing to participate in social engagement, rather than avoiding it altogether.
As opposed to extroverts, introverted people simply don’t like crowds. They don’t like spending much time socialising and making new acquaintances, preferring instead the company of family or close friends. It’s just their style of being and, significantly, their traits spring from preferences, rather than behavioural responses dictated by underlying fear, anxiety or hostility.
At the other end of the spectrum are anxiety disorders, characterised by a severe set of symptoms based on anxiety and fear, accompanied by physical symptoms like hyperventilation, elevated heart rate, shakiness and even panic attacks. Social anxiety disorder is very oppressive and can have a harmful effect if left untreated for a long time, especially since the disorder is not limited to specific scenarios. It can encompass all forms of social interaction and, unlike social anxiety, anxiety disorder can persist long after the perceived threat has passed.
How does it all begin?
So what does social anxiety stem from? Each one of us is the product of a mixture of our genes, our upbringing, and our life experiences. Somewhere along the line, possibly even at a pre-verbal stage of development, we may have picked up certain beliefs, conditionings and ways of being that might once have served us well in our earlier lives, but are now becoming obstacles in the way of our self-development.
Furthermore, because we hold these acquired beliefs to be god-given truths, we have come to view the world through a rigid and outdated frame of reference, projecting our perceived or imagined ‘reality’ onto our environment. Put simply, we assume we know what others are thinking about us, and we habitually see things from our skewed viewpoint, conjuring up danger, mistrust, ridicule and negative attitudes where they don’t exist. In fact, the real world is very different from how we perceive it to be.
How therapy can help
Whatever the severity of your anxiety, the first step (often the most challenging one!) is to acknowledge your issue and to muster the courage to talk about it. Remember that social anxiety is a common condition shared by many. It is treatable and can be tackled through talk-therapy. Your therapist can help you revisit and review your past experiences, bringing awareness to negative elements which you might wish to discard, restructure or look at from a different perspective, thus allowing you to fashion a new, more fulfilling way of being. Your therapist may also discuss with you various forms of self-therapy which can help you to better deal with your anxiety.
If you think you may be experiencing anxiety disorder, the best thing is to discuss your symptoms with your therapist who can help you to decide whether you also need to seek medical assistance to further support you on your therapeutic journey towards healing.