Social anxiety: When it's much more than being “a bit shy”

It is very common to feel nervous before a social situation. Meeting new people (or even people you already know but outside a usual, structured environment such as work) can make many people feel anxious. For some, that anxiety is recognised together with a knowing that it will diminish once they begin to interact with others. Those 'butterflies” in the stomach are part of our culture’s everyday language, and sometimes people bond over these feelings. The shared experience creates a sense of ease.

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If you have social anxiety then this isn’t the case. It is the everyday acceptance that such general trepidation is frequently felt, that can make those who feel so particularly fearful during social situations feel even more isolated and misunderstood. If you have social anxiety you really dread being with people, and you feel it in your body as well as mind. The feelings intensify as you anticipate a social situation, prevent any hope of enjoyment and they remain, sometimes for a long time, after a social interaction. 

You avoid social situations whenever you can. It is that real feeling of dread and self-recrimination that is so often downplayed and not recognised. Unlike some people’s everyday butterflies, the feeling of unease doesn’t often diminish when you begin to interact and may intensify and become overwhelming. For some, the experience is not as intense but still, there is a recognition that there is no enjoyment, only unease. 

How do people react to those who have social anxiety? Most don’t notice your anxiety. If they do, or if you confide in others, often you don’t get the support you need. They may have good intentions, but people around us, and even those close to us, often minimise the distress you feel. “Ah, you’re just a bit shy” they say. Others may say, “It’ll be fine, there is no need to worry” or “I feel that way too, just have another drink, and relax!” Or perhaps worst of all “I don’t understand what’s wrong with you, you look fine?” 

Perhaps colleagues, neighbours or friends show little or no understanding at all and act more harshly towards you. As you repeatedly decline invitations or avoid eye contact, they don’t perceive you as a person who is longing to engage with them. You don’t get invited to social events anymore. You see neighbours chatting, but they never call out “hi” to you. Online, you tend not to comment, even favourably, on social media, for fear of being criticised or looking foolish. Waiting for children at the school gate may be excruciating as you stand alone whilst other parents huddle together and talk about their day.

Though proportionately it affects more women than men, men have social anxiety too. Arguably, given the masculine stereotypes that we live with, men may find it harder to admit to these feelings, even to those close to them, and find it particularly hard to seek help.

You are so fearful of social situations that you avoid them to reduce your distress, but others see you as someone who is standoffish and aloof. Your real need to feel acceptance and belonging seems like it will always elude you. You long for that easy sense of enjoying people’s company, but if an opportunity arises, you shrink away and then the critical voice in your head berates you over and over for your self-perceived feelings of failure and inadequacy. But there is perhaps another part of you that is maybe even seen by a few very close to you, that is fun-loving, generous and kind, with interesting things to talk about and share with others. Your social anxiety keeps it all hidden away.

Social anxiety can ruin your relationships, prevent relationships from starting, impact your education, and career, and cause you to miss opportunities to fully engage with life. It is debilitating and distressing.

So, it’s not always just a little apprehension, “introversion”, or shyness. For those with social anxiety, it is a dread felt before, during and after social encounters. It is a dread felt in your mind and in your body. You may lose sleep, worry about how others think of you, or that you may do or say something embarrassing. It may feel like everyone will be watching you, judging you, and that your feelings of inadequacy must be apparent to everyone. “Shall I speak? Why did I say that, I sound so stupid?” You may feel yourself beginning to sweat and blush, feel a little sick and trembly even at the thought of being in a social situation. You may have a panic attack when the fear and anxiety become overwhelming.

You may feel anxious about everyday activities, like going to the supermarket and making small talk at the till, phoning a utility company to pay a bill, or bumping into a neighbour who likes to chat. At work, you may avoid colleagues who invite you for coffee, and dread group training days and team activities.

The prospect of being expected to attend office parties fills you with particular dread. You may manage others at work but feel the strain of always wearing a mask to try and hide how uncomfortable you really are. Social anxiety may well hold you back from seeking the promotion and role you know you have the skills for. Sometimes it makes you easy prey for a workplace bully.


How can counselling help?

If you have social anxiety, booking a session with a counsellor, anticipating the session, worrying about what the counsellor may say to you, or what you may be expected to say, can bring about those familiar feelings of dread. For a person who has social anxiety, taking the step of seeking help is particularly daunting and takes huge courage. 

Many people with social anxiety recognise keenly how debilitating it is, but don’t seek help. Unfortunately, whilst social anxiety may improve over time, particularly for those who suffered particularly as teenagers and young adults, it rarely resolves itself and continues into adulthood, often accompanied by other debilitating conditions such as depression.

It may be that over time, you have found ways that at least in the short term have helped you to cope. That may be through using alcohol, tobacco, or prescription and non-prescription drugs. You may have chosen an occupational based on it being accepted that you work alone. If that sounds like you, then it is worth considering that you have done well to find a way to help you cope. You may however recognise too that in the longer term, these coping mechanisms take you further and further from the person you want to be, and further from the life that you want to live, and may cause long-term harm to you.

If you are considering counselling to help with your feelings, do please get in touch with me. Whilst a counselling relationship develops over time, you need to seek a counsellor who “gets” you. A person who understands how you feel and can help you make sense of your feelings. You will probably know that after just one session. You have no obligation to continue after that, with me, or any other counsellor.

I offer a calm, confidential and non-judgmental space for us to begin, at whatever pace that you want, to explore your feelings of anxiety in social situations and, with time, make changes in your life to, perhaps for the first time, imagine a different future for yourself.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Liverpool, Merseyside, L37 6DN
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Written by Stephen Garvey, Fully Qualified Person Centred Counsellor, NCS accredited.
Liverpool, Merseyside, L37 6DN

Stephen Garvey is an experienced person centred counsellor based in Formby, Merseyside. He has a particular interest in counselling people with social anxiety. He has a private and discreet office to meet with clients.

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