Social Anxiety Disorder. Social Phobia. Social Anxiety. We hear these terms quite a bit in our modern vocabulary. In order to be clear, I'd like to define a couple of terms.
When I speak of social anxiety, I am referring to
A feeling of uneasiness or apprehension about social interactions and how we appear to others. Very often, the source of the social anxiety is a concern that one will be (or is being) judged negatively by other people, regardless of whether this is actually the case.
It’s important to note that mild to moderate feelings like this effect most people. I would say that at least 90% of people that I've worked with over the years in counseling have a mild to moderate degree of anxiety in social situations. For example, most people who are speaking in front of a group will have considerable anxiety. This is normal.
However, it is a matter of degree. I often think about anxiety and other feelings on a scale (say, from 1-10), rather than having social anxiety or not having it. At a certain point, the anxiety goes beyond nervousness and apprehension to the point where it either 1) significantly impairs our ability to function in that situation or 2) we avoid the situation altogether.
When I use the term social phobia....
I mean the avoidance of necessary activities in one’s life due to the level of social anxiety that one feels. In this case, the anxiety that one feels causes significant impairment in his/her life. The avoided or feared circumstances may be very specific to a particular type of situation, or they can be so broad that they apply to most of one’s social contact with other people. When individuals have this degree of anxiety, they will usually fit the criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder.
Interestingly enough, Social Anxiety Disorder and Social Phobia are considered the same diagnosis in the DSM-5. If you are concerned that you or someone you love may be suffering from this condition or something similar, please read on.
NOTE: A fantastic resource for Social Anxiety can be found at this link.
A combination of things. As you probably guessed, certain social situations create anxiety for many people, and for those living with a social phobia, the anxiety can be almost intolerable.
But let’s look closer. Anxiety is a feeling, one that is hardwired in our being. It has historically served a purpose--to help us be alert for danger. Then we react: typically by
I have had all of these reactions to anxiety. So have most people. Some of us tend to favor one of these three reactions in most anxiety-provoking situations.
What’s behind the feelings? Thoughts, and thinking patterns. The good news: These patterns are LEARNED. Thus, they can be unlearned, and you can teach yourself (or have a professional help teach you) new, healthier thought patterns. Very often, people with a lot of social anxiety are very concerned about what others think, or lack the skills and knowledge to function in certain social situations. This brings us to the big question: how does one address their social anxiety? Or to put it another way--what is out there that really works in addressing this problem?
Being constantly fearful of others, and not being able to trust others (and sometimes not trust ourselves) can certainly contribute to social anxiety. More on the critical importance of trust on this page.
Enough talk about causes and symptoms. I’ll get to the point. Can social anxiety disorder be treated? Yes! Let’s turn our attention to tools that have been shown to work for people.
For more about the basics of CBT see this link.
I often encourage clients to get to the bottom of their anxiety by considering what the worst case scenario is in a given situation. I encourage you to write this out (or think it through), and then consider 1) the likelihood of this scenario actually happening and 2) how you would cope in the event that it does actually happen. Doing this tends to be very calming, especially once you consider other, more likely scenarios.
Example: You are going to give a speech in front of 30 classmates. Your worst case scenario is that you fumble your words, your voice gives out, and your classmates laugh at you. Okay, this is the worst thing that could happen? Good to know. Now, consider the likelihood of this happening--assign a percentage to it. Next, consider other alternative outcomes, and assign percentages to those possibilities also. This exercise helps many, many people. Try it out!
You may be wondering: do I have social anxiety disorder? A social phobia perhaps? Labels are less important than getting to the root of the problem. When in doubt, see a mental health professional for an accurate diagnosis of your problem.
In any case, if you feel that you struggle with social anxiety to the extent that it interferes with your ability to live your life the way you want to, please understand that this is a treatable condition! Use of the methods described on this page, and/or consultation with a mental health counselor can prove very helpful in coping with social anxiety disorder and related conditions.