Looking into social anxiety

Anxiety triggered by social situations is quite a common issue. I guess everyone has felt very anxious at least once in a lifetime with regard to speaking in public, taking exams, a job interview, attending a party with strangers or starting a conversation with an unknown person.

Instances implying potential social judgments can undoubtedly represent a source of anxiety.

A certain amount of anxiety is acknowledged as useful in order to improve our performance (both socially and professionally), by making us more focused on the task, for example. If the level of intensity related to anxiety raises excessively though, the risk of a counterproductive response may arise too, worsening our performance.

Feeling a bit anxious or stressed in social situations is no big deal per se. It usually occurs quite often as a matter of fact. But for some of us, social anxiety can quickly escalate to overwhelming levels, with the person experiencing unbearable unease or even a panic attack to the extent that they would rather avoid exposure to said social situations in the first place. If this condition significantly impacts our daily routine and brings forth intense discomfort, it might relate to a social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety can be generalised or specific, depending on how many social situations are intensely feared. Usually the most feared situations relate to speaking in public, eating, drinking or writing in public, engaging in a conversation, participating in group activities, speaking with a person of authority, taking exams.

Social anxiety, if generalised, can be confused with shyness at times. The main difference here lies in shyness being a personality trait occurring at a very early developmental stage as well as being a normal part within the process of growing up. Although shyness as a trait can significantly change throughout a person’s lifetime, it tends to be stable and continuous. On the contrary, people suffering from social anxiety usually experience a sudden onset, which crucially marks the difference between pre-onset and post-onset functioning.

Why does this happen?

Anxiety is an emotion that we can experience when a potential danger is perceived. When this happens, our archaic reptilian brain activates several bodily reactions connected to the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response prepares our body to react to a potential danger promptly in order to survive. We may experience tachicardia due to the increased heart rate as our body aims to provide contracted and ready-to-react muscles with oxygen. The body can also interrupt digestion to save energy so that we may experience stomach or abdominal pain. We may feel dizzy and mentally confused too, because of the sudden blood concentration in the main muscles and, for the same reason, we may experience a tingling or torpidity in our body extremities.

Social situations as a threat

The reason why we feel anxious in a social situation is the threat we perceive in it.

If this happens, it is important to ask yourself: What is the threat? What could possibly happen that I fear? What’s the worst that can happen?

Trying to get an answer to these questions really depends on the person. The tricky aspect of anxiety is that most of the times we are not even aware of the specific reason that triggered such a response.

In the case of social anxiety, the perceived threat is often the fear of acting in an embarrassing or shameful way, or making a display of our anxiety-related symptoms in front of other people with the risk of incurring negative judgment.

When a social situation is perceived as a threat, several other processes take place and worsen the anxious state.

We might try our very best in an attempt not to show any anxiety, using tricks to hide the symptoms with the result of focusing even more on how we could appear to others rather than on our performance (that can eventually be affected).

If you recognise yourself in the dynamics described above, you may think about seeking help.
cognitive behavioural psychotherapy can help you recognise the process that takes place in these situations and break the vicious cycles. Cognitive behavioural psychotherapy can also help you handle anxiety effectively and make you feel more confident about yourself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
London, WC1A 1LH
Written by Ilaria Tedeschi
London, WC1A 1LH

Ilaria Tedeschi is a cognitive behavioural psychotherapist, BACP registered, working in Marylebone and Chelsea both in English and Italian, with adult and adolescent clients experiencing depressive, anxiety, sleep and relational issues.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals