What is social anxiety?
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Neil Turner UKCP MBACP - Individuals & Couples & Supervision
28th January, 20140 Comments
In this article I'll abbreviate Social Anxiety, which is also known as Social Phobia, to SA.
Some people struggle with stress and anxiety for many years without understanding that their difficulties might be as a result of SA.
In a nutshell, SA is a phobia or fear of social situations. It could be described as a fear of people but is mainly in relation to groups of people. Commonly, the experiences include an anxiety of being in the spot light and a self-consciousness around speaking or being observed. The reverse can sometimes be true where the fear of NOT being seen or heard can create similar anxieties.
Many people experience some level of nerves and anxiety socially but the balance is tipped when the anxiety becomes overwhelming and in many cases debilitating. As a result this may prevent someone from communicating or living as fully as they would like. Withdrawal and avoidance often become a way of coping, which may lead to isolation and depression.
What are the physical symptoms?
The body responds in the same way that anyone with another phobia might experience. Because the mind believes there is a very real danger the body is instructed to go into fight or flight mode. As such chemicals and hormones are released into the blood stream increasing the heart rate and body temperature and shortening the breath. The body is now ready to run or fight but the external realities don't call for such a reaction. Therefore, the build up of energy has nowhere to go other than remain within the body resulting in symptoms such as blushing, sweating or shaking.
Breath work and body related therapeutic techniques can be very useful in the treatment and support of SA.
Introvert or Extrovert?
Shyness is often linked with social anxiety and whilst this may be true for some, it is more of a character trait than a social difficulty. In other words, someone who is shy may be comfortable with this aspect of themselves. Meanwhile, someone with SA, invariably, would like to be more extroverted at times but finds self-consciousness and fear getting in the way.
Some people may have been criticised for being shy or introverted and so have struggled with this part of themselves, perhaps understanding it to be socially unacceptable. Therefore, embracing the fact that they are a natural introvert or shy can quickly enable self acceptance and permission to allow - quietness, solitude and introspection.
Society in general is geared towards extroversion encouraging confidence and outward-going behaviour. This may be a substantial contributing factor in the prevalence of SA. True introverts really need their own space and time for inward reflection, time to think and to assess their feeling; to deny this can engender shame and low self-esteem.
Without introversion there would be very little literature, poetry, art or even science. The world really needs introverts just as much as it needs extroverts.
What are the emotional symptoms?
During a challenging social situation the physical reactions can be so overwhelming that any mental awareness is often limited to - 'Not this again!', 'This is so embarrassing!', 'Everyone is looking at me!', 'Why can't I be more confidant?!' etc.
However, one of the key emotional bi-products of the social anxiety experience is the after effect. Someone with SA is prone to beating themselves up after certain events with thoughts such as 'I wasn't good enough!', 'There's something wrong with me!', 'Everyone else was confident and happy!'
As a result depressive feelings can quickly follow. Going through the experience of SA on a regular basis is also extremely exhausting both emotionally and physically and is further compounded by the dread of the next anxiety-provoking situation.
Along with withdrawal and isolation other coping strategies such as alcohol and drug use can be common. Some people cope by over compensating by creating a very confident and defensive persona, which masks the fear. Someone with SA may regularly hear that they are hard to read or difficult to reach and as a result they may feel misunderstood. This is because what they want others to see externally (confident, happy, relaxed) often doesn't match their internal realities (frightened, ashamed, stressed).
What causes social anxiety?
The main cause of social anxiety is that somewhere in the past beliefs have been internalised, which may sound something like:
- There's something wrong with me
- I can't survive
- I'm not good enough
- I'm weak
- I need others to approve of me
- Others are better than me
- I need to be careful
- Life is dangerous.
The overall belief that has been taken on board is that - I'm not OK as I am.
These beliefs can be picked up from various sources. The most common one is the experience of being bullied. The school experience, for most of us, is one of our first social experiences and if it turns out to be a dangerous one then it is only reasonable that we would want to avoid similar encounters in the future. Therefore, someone who was bullied may associate situations, such as meetings and parties, back to that earlier social experience.
Bullying is a shaming experience and shame can be held in the cells of the body as trauma. This can be reactivated when we are reminded of dangerous events in the past switching our nervous system into fight or flight mode. Therapeutic techniques can help de-activate these triggers.
Often, SA is present within the family and can be passed on through the generations. Very anxious parents may unwittingly teach their children that the world is unsafe and so it becomes very difficult for them to break away from that grip and re-educate themselves. Leaving home can prove very challenging in this case.
What can be done about it?
The good news is that there are numerous techniques and approaches available which can support or transform SA. The experience of SA does not have to be your on-going life experience. You can overcome it with determination, courage and curiosity.
There are some very good support groups in London and throughout the country. Joining a group will, of course, bring up a lot of anxiety but it is the best place to explore SA and to know you are not alone. One to one counselling with someone who understands this type of anxiety provides invaluable support. If being in contact with people is currently too much video counselling could be an easier option providing support from the comfort of your own home.
However, for some leaving home is a struggle in itself. The anxiety has become so consuming that sitting in a group or opposite a therapist can be far too challenging. For this reason, access to the internet or a telephone can provide a safe link into counselling and psychological support with some counsellors providing typed email sessions. Online / email sessions can be very useful for someone with acute anxiety as they provide time to think about the questions as well as space to process and consider the response.
Where SA is as a result of trauma there are many techniques available that help release it from the body and mind such as EMDR and EFT.
SA is actually very common but well hidden due to shame and societal pressures for confident and extrovert personalities. It can be very isolating but those who experience SA should know they are not alone.
Having SA doesn't have to be a life sentence. Whilst many feel imprisoned in their anxiety there are pathways available towards freedom beyond fear and trauma.
Gaining insight into the nature of recurring anxiety and understanding it might be a fear of social situation can help steer healing and transformation in the right direction.
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