Social anxiety and avoidance
Social anxiety can be crippling.
Sufferers will often do anything to avoid what for them are excruciating social interactions, and what is excruciating for them can literally be what is for you and me just a walk in the park. Can you imagine walking through the park or down the street and being in constant turmoil in your head, wondering how you are going to negotiate getting past people? Who will have to move? In what direction? Do I go left or right? What if I go right and they go right or they go left and I go left. What if they don’t move at all! What will be their path of least resistance? The answer for them is avoidance. This may involve totally changing direction before the dreaded confrontation takes place or not taking any risk in the first place and therefore not ever walking where others walk.
Can you imagine what it must be like to be in a crowded restaurant with your family and absolutely dying of embarrassment when your brother, sister, mother or father once again stands up and shouts a complaint to the waiting staff causing the rest of the diners to look at you with what you perceive is disdain, making you want to just slide under the table? What will their default position be? Avoidance! They will do and say anything to avoid EVER having to go into a restaurant, café or anywhere else where their presence may come to the attention of others.
What about being out with your sociable girlfriend and feeling constantly railroaded by her to pick up or take home her friends who do not drive or are too tipsy to drive? You don’t want to have to admit you find these situations extremely stressful - they make you sweat and feel sick. Just the thought of having to do it fills you with dread. You haven’t said anything to your girlfriend as you don’t think she will understand, and you don’t want her to end the relationship because of your social anxiety. So, what do you do? You have to come up with more and more excuses and avoid any possibility of having to have a conversation where you confess your problem.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is causing people to have a life less lived. For some, it is so serious and totally crippling that they cannot go outside. For these individuals, the answer may lie in connecting with others through social media and online gaming. They live their social lives in the safety of a virtual world.
Social anxiety is particularly prevalent amongst university students struggling with transitioning from home life and school, where every aspect of their lives has been taken care of and they have a secure sense of belonging. Suddenly, instead of being a big fish in a small pond, they are a very small fish in a very big pond feeling totally out of their depth. Their family and social group are no longer there to support them; they suddenly have responsibility for every aspect of their daily lives, and it is left to them to create new social networks. For some, the challenge of staying connected is just too overwhelming. They feel unable to share their anxiety with family or in-house well-being services, and so begin to isolate themselves and, in the most distressing cases, take their own lives.
Presentation anxiety is another form of social anxiety. The terror attached to the thought of standing up in front of people activates the body’s parasympathetic nervous system. We tend to know it as the fight, flight or freeze response. We experience it as a pounding heart, sweating palms and loss of coherent speech. We can’t think straight - we can’t think at all.
Forms of treatment
For those who seek help, the degree of impairment will determine the types of treatment likely to have the most beneficial effect. For the most serious, a combination of pharmacological (antidepressants for example) and psychological treatments (talking therapies); for the less serious a combination of psychological and self-help (apps, books, videos etc) treatments may do the trick.
Read our article; 7 apps to help feel less anxious and stressed
For most people, the talking therapies will be sufficiently effective, and according to some research, the most effective is one to one cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which focuses on psycho-education and practical interventions such as breathing and relaxation techniques.
If the stress of social anxiety is having a negative effect on your life and leading to a life less lived, seek help and get your life back.