Solving Social Anxiety
After graduating from college in Michigan, Jessica Taylor left the state to pursue a new life in North Carolina. For most, moving away from the comfort of home is a natural next step. They may naturally miss home or experience some nerves about starting a new chapter of their lives, but for Jessica, those nerves go far deeper than just a couple of worried thoughts.
For someone who has social anxiety like Jessica, moving to a new state, where it’s now solely up to her to plan her life and make friends, is not an easy change.
“When I was a child, it wasn’t so bad because my dad and other adults did all the planning and most decision making skills for me. Once becoming an adult and moving to a new city, it was all on me to plan and make friends, which has caused a lot of anxiety,” Jessica explained.
This feeling is nothing new for Jessica. In fact, she developed social anxiety at a very young age after losing her mother to cancer.
“Since then, fear has been a part of my life and fearing social events and activities leaves me with a lot of anxiety,” she said.
What is Social Anxiety?
Jessica isn’t alone in dealing with these issues. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, social anxiety affects 15 million adults, or 6.8% of the U.S. population.
According to Dr. Heather M. Chik, Ph.D., HSPP, a clinical psychologist and the owner and director of the Anxiety & OCD Behavioral Health Center in Munster, Indiana, “Social anxiety involves worries about other people’s judgement and rejection, being humiliated or embarrassed, or acting in a way that may be offensive to others. While these may be common worries, it becomes a disorder (AKA social anxiety disorder) when specific social situations almost always provoke anxiety, the social situations are either avoided or endured with intense anxiety, and the anxiety interferes with important areas of functioning such as school, work, and relationships.”
What Social Anxiety Looks Like
For Jessica, social anxiety means fearing social events. “Tonight I’m supposed to be heading to a co-worker’s house and I’m over-thinking everything. Did I hear the time right? Do they really want me there?” She thinks. These fearful thoughts lead her to becoming nauseous, and if it gets bad enough, even dry heaving. For others, social anxiety can manifest itself in countless other ways.
As for Hunter Moreno, a videographer living in Los Angeles, social anxiety means worrying about and expecting the disapproval of others.
“I remember when I was in high school I used to have this constant fear that certain people really hated me and wanted to fight me all the time, so every time I went out to hang out with a friend or went to school I had the worst constant anxiety of ‘what if we go here and he’s there’ and ‘what will I do if he is, how will I handle the situation?’” Hunter said.
Social Anxiety Causes
According to Dr. Chik, social anxiety can be brought on by interpersonal situations, like for Jessica and Hunter. Or it can come from more performance-driven situations, such as giving speeches or leading meetings.
“People with social anxiety generally describe concerns of being the center of attention, displaying anxiety reactions in front of others (e.g., mumbling, sweating, trembling), creating conflict, or appearing foolish or making mistakes,” Dr. Chik said.
Coping with Social Anxiety
Both Jessica and Hunter say they’ve learned to manage their social anxiety issues as they age and mature. Others develop more harmful coping mechanisms.
“To make themselves more comfortable in social situations, people with social anxiety may engage in safety behaviors that only provides temporary relief from anxiety,” Dr. Chik said. “For example, if someone is worried about the consequences of being the center of attention, they might deliberately avoid eye contact, avoid talking about themselves, and perhaps deliberately ask a lot of questions. If they are concerned about displaying anxiety, they might cover their face and keep tight control of their behavior. You might find others trying to act very agreeable and avoid expressing their opinions if they don’t want conflict. Finally, others might make an effort to come across well, get their words right, and act as ‘perfectly’ as possible if they worry about making mistakes and acting foolish in front of others.”
If left untreated, people with social anxiety will never learn the appropriate tools to deal with their worries. Instead, they will continue to censor their words and actions, avoid social events or not be themselves, as Dr. Chik explains. This will undoubtedly hinder the person’s life, as they could miss out on amazing experiences, opportunities or even relationships due to their social anxiety holding them back.
“It has definitely stopped me from taking many opportunities in the past, whether it be asking a girl out, or going to an event it stopped me from doing things I wanted to do for a while,” Hunter said.
Luckily, it is possible for social anxiety to be lessened and overcome. If you’re like Hunter or Jessica, maturing isn’t your only option when it comes to relief.
“I work with individuals with social anxiety disorders with evidence-based psychological treatments and interventions, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, mindfulness-based interventions, and acceptance-based interventions,” said Dr. Chik.
Dr. Chik goes on to explain that through CBT, interventions are “designed to show the person with anxiety that fears of criticism and rejection are overestimated.” The first step in doing this is to help the person with social anxiety to develop what’s known as “assertive responses.” These pre-planned answers to any criticism the person may be fearing will help them develop more confidence and less of a need to avoid social situations.
“For example, a teenager who worries that others will think she is incompetent and not worthy if she stutters while answering a question in front of her classmates might develop an assertive response such as ‘I stutter because I am anxious. Having anxiety does not mean I am incompetent and am not a worthy person. In fact, both stuttering and having anxiety are quite common.’ The teen would develop a series of similar assertive responses to all of her feared criticisms and outcomes,” Dr. Chik said.
The next step is role play. Dr. Chik would put on the character of a highly critical person and help the teen practice defending herself.
“With each successive role play, the teen would become more confident in the face of increasingly harsh criticisms,” Dr. Chik said.
Following that, “the next phase of treatment is to practice these assertive defenses in real-life situations,” according to Dr. Chik.
“While the teen cannot count on criticism being expressed by others, the teen can imagine others being critical in social situations and practice the response to herself while maintaining eye contact during the practice (if appropriate). For example, the teen can answer a question in class and imagine her classmates thinking she is ‘stupid’ and ‘worthless’ and practice rehearsing her assertive response in her mind,” Dr. Chik said.
To further strengthen her clients, Dr. Chik even challenges them to seek out rejection experiences. So, she’d tell the teen in the above example to stutter on purpose in class.
“Ultimately, she learns that the responses from classmates are generally not as bad she imagined,” she said.
All throughout these treatment steps, Dr. Chik also teaches her clients other helpful skills such as mindfulness, mindful breathing and attention training while simultaneously encouraging them to learn more self-compassion. Medication is also an option that Dr. Chik says can be useful as long as all other methods have already been exhausted.
Social anxiety, like all other forms of anxiety, is simply our mind running away from us and concocting ideas or issues that more than likely don’t actually exist.
Jessica’s coworker probably invited her over to get to know her better, not out of obligation. Chances are that the kids in Hunter’s class didn’t ever intend to cause him harm, and that was all in his head. The same is said for Dr. Chik’s client with the stutter- her classmates surely didn’t even think twice about it and if they did, it wasn’t as big of a deal as she thought.
With Dr. Chik’s three steps and her suggested additional methods, social anxiety sufferers can stop lying about why they can’t attend an event, will no longer be overwhelmed with nerves when they have to give a presentation or meet someone new and will stop hiding in bed when invited out to an event. If you or a loved one know what any of this feels like, turn to Dr. Chik’s steps and you may begin to find relief.
Photo credit: Unsplash by Joshua Earle