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Social anxiety is the third most common mental health disorder in the world. Most of us have had an occasion when we have felt uncomfortable and awkward about a social occasion. Maybe you have been asked to do some public speaking, step out of your comfort zone, meeting new people or perhaps an interview for a job. How did you feel? Is this a temporary feeling or something greater?
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, involves intense fear of certain social situations and especially situations that are unfamiliar or in which you feel you’ll be watched or judged by others.
These social situations may be so frightening that you get anxious just thinking about them or you go to great extreme measure to try to avoid them.
Underlying social anxiety disorder or social phobia is the fear of being scrutinized, judged, or embarrassed in public. You may be afraid that people will think badly of you or that you won’t measure up in comparison to others. And even though you probably realize that your fears of being judged are at least somewhat irrational and overblown, you still can’t help feeling anxious.
There are many things that can help although at the time, that may not be clear. It starts with understanding the problem.
Although it may feel like you’re the only one with this problem, social anxiety or social phobia is actually quite common. Many people struggle with this fear, but the situations that trigger the symptoms of social anxiety disorder can be varied.
Some people experience anxiety in most social and performance situations, a condition known as “generalised social anxiety disorder”. For other people with social phobia, anxiety is connected with specific social situations, such as speaking to strangers, eating at restaurants, or going to parties. The most common cause is the fear of public speaking.
Signs and symptoms
Just because you occasionally get nervous in social situations doesn’t mean you have social anxiety disorder or social phobia. That’s perfectly normal. Many people are shy or self-conscious at least from time to time yet it doesn’t get in the way of their everyday functioning. Social anxiety disorder does interfere with your normal routine and causes tremendous distress.
For example, it’s perfectly normal to get the jitters before giving a speech – so just relax. But if you have social anxiety disorder or social phobia, you might worry for weeks ahead of time, call in sick to get out of it, or start shaking so bad during the speech that you can hardly speak and in general, just fall apart.
Treatment – Social anxiety sufferers have negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety.
Challenging these negative thoughts is an effective way to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder.
First step is to identify the automatic negative thoughts that underlie the fear of social situations. So if you’re worried about an upcoming work presentation, the underlying negative thought might be: “I’m going to blow it. Everyone will think I’m completely incompetent.” Analyze your thoughts and challenge them. It may be scary but if you understand the reasons, then it will lessen the negative impact on your life.
Another strategy to lessen the impact is learning to slow your breathing down can help you bring your physical symptoms of anxiety back under control. Regular practice of relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation will also help you get control over the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Another strategy is to simply ‘face your fears’ and push through the barriers. Sometimes by avoiding the situation, you magnify the problem. Actively seeking out and joining supportive social environments is another effective way of tackling and overcoming social anxiety disorder or social phobia. Join a club, maybe something small at first and put yourself in social situations where you can comfortably and slowly build your social skills.
You may also benefit from avoiding excessive caffeine, alcohol and ensuring you are getting a good night’s sleep.
Of all the professional treatments available, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to work the best for treating social anxiety disorder, or social phobia. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the premise that what you think affects how you feel, and your feelings affect your behavior. So if you change the way you think about social situations that give you anxiety, you’ll feel and function better and perhaps the disorder will regain some order in your life.