Many people struggle with the fear of public speaking or performance anxiety in public. But when this fear becomes pervasive and drives you to avoid even neutral, everyday social situations, you may be suffering from Social Anxiety Disorder, otherwise known as SAD or social phobia.
SAD is the official psychological diagnosis for social anxiety so intense that it disrupts your daily life and functioning. Not everyone with social anxiety has a mental health disorder, but whether or not your anxiety has prevented you from functioning, it has probably caused you significant distress.
The DSM-IV defines social phobia as: “A marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing” (APA, 1994, p. 416).
According to experts, “the distinctive characteristic of individuals with social phobia is fear of scrutiny by others.”
In 2013, the DSM-V was published, with this updated characteristic of Social Anxiety Disorder: it lasts for six months or more. At that point, it qualifies for diagnosis as a disorder.
Social anxiety is a common fear, affecting around 7% of Americans (and up to 12% will experience it at some point during their lifetime). But just because it is relatively common doesn’t make it less isolating. When you struggle with social anxiety, you might think no one else feels this way, and this sense of isolation can increase your anxiety.
If you have a social phobia, you’re aware of your anxiety and how it interferes with your functioning, but you might feel powerless to stop your physiological symptoms when you are in a given social setting. Your fear of physical symptoms can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, causing more involuntary physical symptoms.
Sometimes this condition may seem to go away for awhile, but it flares up under stress, or when it’s no longer possible to avoid a triggering situation. If that is the case, you may think you don’t need to seek treatment for the anxiety, but fast forward several months or a few years. You’re going through a lot of life stressors, and suddenly you find that your social anxiety has driven you to avoidance and you’ve become isolated.
This situation can wreak havoc on your mental health, so it’s important to seek social anxiety therapy as soon as possible so the anxiety doesn’t become unmanageable. Keep reading to learn some of the most common signs of Social Anxiety Disorder, and to find out what you can do for social anxiety treatment if you think you may suffer from this mental health condition.Symptoms and Signs of Social Anxiety
As mentioned above, adults with social anxiety are usually aware that their level of fear in social situations is unusually high. This awareness doesn’t make the problem go away, though. And, even if you’re aware of your fear, you might not recognize all of the symptoms.
Here are some of the most common signs of SAD:
Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms
According to Mayo Clinic, these symptoms include:
- Fear of being judged in social situations.
- Fear of having to talk to or interact with strangers.
- Fear of embarrassing yourself in public or around other people.
- Avoidance of the situations you fear.
- Avoidance of talking to people.
- Overanalyzing your performance after a social situation.
Mayo Clinic also describes the physical symptoms that accompany social anxiety:
- Fast heartbeat
- Upset stomach
If you suffer from social anxiety, you know that these physical symptoms make it more difficult to successfully navigate social situations, which in turn makes your fear worse. That’s why having social phobia can make you feel trapped. Facing your fears means having to go through those symptoms again, and that can make it seem like overcoming your anxiety is impossible.
Experts aren’t completely sure what leads to the development of social phobias. Some studies have suggested that genetics play a role, or that your environment may have something to do with it. For example, if one or both of your parents were anxious in social situations, you may have inadvertently internalized this anxiety, and then it manifested in you as you got older.
Or maybe you grew up with parents who were controlling or overprotective. If children are not allowed to naturally develop independence, they may internalize the message that they are not capable of successfully navigating the world on their own. If children are overly dependent due to being overly protected, they may develop social anxiety because they don’t have the necessary skills to navigate social situations – or they just don’t have the confidence.
This isn’t to say that parents are to blame when a child or teenager develops social anxiety; in some cases, it may just be that their personality makes them naturally shy and withdrawing, and then their social anxiety was triggered by an embarrassing or stressful situation (or a series of them).
Someone who has a lot of risk factors or is temperamentally prone to developing social anxiety may be triggered by an event or series of events, or new demands placed upon them, and find themselves with Social Anxiety Disorder.
Studies have also found a link between an overactive amygdala, which is the fear center of the brain, and social anxiety. And, we know that social anxiety often presents along with other anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, or substance use.
Regardless of the root cause of your phobia, or your specific symptoms, social anxiety can be distressing and debilitating. It strongly impacts daily life and functioning, making it difficult to have a successful career and social life. The more you experience fear, the more you avoid situations that provoke your fear, and the more fearful you become.
The sooner you seek social anxiety treatment, the better. If you catch it early, you have a much better chance of overcoming social anxiety than if you have given it years to become cemented in your brain. However, even if you have suffered from this condition for many years, there is still hope for overcoming social anxiety. Here are some social anxiety therapy options.
This first suggestion is one you can try right now, even before you are able to get an appointment with a professional. When it comes to any form of anxiety, writing can be an incredibly effective and free form of therapy. This is not to say that journaling should be used as a substitute for professional help, but you can use it in conjunction with other forms of therapy.
Expressive or therapeutic writing is connected to better mental and physical health, and it has even been shown to lower social anxiety levels over time in subjects who wrote about a stressful public speaking event.
If you want to try journaling, try setting a timer and writing for five minutes, then examine what you wrote and try to write about it from a different perspective. You can also write down a simple step to take to improve your situation.
When you can write down what you’re struggling with, reframe it from a different perspective, and imagine a possibility for handling it, this process can help your brain deal with your fears and begin to take a step towards overcoming your challenges.
Learning Healthy Coping Strategies
When you are struggling with this issue, learning some techniques for coping can make a big difference in your daily functioning. A counselor can help you learn specific techniques and make a plan for implementing them in your everyday life.
A few of the coping strategies you can try include:
- Naming your anxiety
- Recognizing that it’s irrational
- Practicing deep breathing
- Focusing on what you can notice with your senses (colors, textures, objects in the room)
- Accepting your discomfort
These strategies may not be possible to implement immediately, but they are something to work toward, especially with a therapist.
Christian Counseling for Social Anxiety
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, also known as CBT, can include exposure therapy, in which your counselor helps you face the situations you fear. Your counselor can help you set specific goals for each time you are exposed to a situation you fear – for example, trying to talk to one new person at a social event.
Medication is sometimes prescribed for social anxiety, but it depends on whether your anxiety is generalized or not.
Social anxiety can feel paralyzing, but you don’t have to let it take over your life. Treatment for this condition is very effective and can start you on the journey toward overcoming your struggles today. Christian counseling provides a safe setting for you to discuss your challenges in a judgment-free and compassionate atmosphere.
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