Excuse the stupidly cute hamster, he was just to grab your attention… but the wide-eyed gaze, his still body and clasping hands reminded me of how humans look when they are feeling socially anxious. If you’ve arrived here, then this feature is to introduce you to social anxiety and how I approach this in CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy).
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is when you experience fear or anxiety in social situations. It can vary in intensity from mild distress to extreme phobia of social or public engagements where the sufferer has come to avoid and retreat from any social situations. It typically begins in the early teens. It seems to me important to make the distinction between shyness and social anxiety. Some people can be shy and yet quite able to engage in a wide variety of social situations. Likewise, if you just prefer small groups and quiet socialising, then this may be your preference and just the way you are. Social anxiety is when (whether you are outgoing or of a quieter disposition) your anxiety gets the better of you and you begin to avoid, and excessively worry before future engagements, and/or spend time after the event going over it in your mind. Social anxiety can affect you before, during and after social interactions. It affects your life, your relationships and how you feel about yourself.
The main characteristic of social anxiety is when you fear negative judgement from others, particularly in your social group (friendships, peers at work or at college/university, groups you attend). If you experience social anxiety, then you worry a lot about people thinking badly of you in some way and even that others may reject you as a consequence of this negative judgement.
While social anxiety sufferers’ worries and anxieties may vary slightly, if you have social anxiety then you will almost certainly be thinking that other people might think you are weird, uncool, stupid, rude, weak, or not good enough, for example.
Where does social anxiety affect people?
The situations which are triggers for social anxiety vary. Common places include meetings at work, social engagements, any situation where you might need to perform in front of others (giving a talk or presentation), parties, going to the pub or a restaurant, making phone calls or even going to the shops. You may experience in small groups or large, or even one to one. When you have social anxiety, other human beings pose a threat.
Why does social anxiety feel so bad?
From an evolutionary standpoint, if through our life experiences we have come to develop beliefs where we see others as threatening (anxiety is always about a perceived threat!), the idea that we may be rejected by others provokes a strong mind and body response. Our fight or flight response is activated and our body and mind go on high alert when it perceives a threat to our survival. Why does it do this when we’re not really at risk? The reason is that our brain reacts in a very primitive way even in today’s modern and relatively comfortable world. Even if our worst fears are true and someone does have a negative opinion of us, then our life is rarely at immediate risk because of this. But, in our evolutionary past, if we were rejected from our social group, our peers, or our tribe, then we probably were at real risk as we might lose our shelter, our food, our means of surviving as a group. Our ancient ancestors depended on living in tribes to survive - cast out of a group and we would risk starvation or predators. Unfortunately our brains respond as if we were still living in this way. That’s the tricky modern brain with its alarm on a highly sensitive setting.
If you’re looking for a simple answer on why your brain might have a more sensitive setting than another’s, then there’s no single answer. Biological and social factors, your temperament, your family upbringing, being around critical people (parents, carers or teachers), as well as your individual experiences in life can all make you more or less vulnerable. A compassionate understanding of these influences can help, but real changes can be made when you are ready to confront and challenge your fears.
When the social anxiety alarm bell has been set off, this will affect how you feel, how you think and how you act.
Social anxiety - what does it feel like?
Social anxiety symptoms can affect any part of the body and all of these sensations are created by your fight or flight response. You may feel hot, experience a racing heart, feel like you want to run away, have sweaty palms, or a tight chest. You might find it hard to find your words.
Things can really up a notch if you are someone who blushes or shakes, because this can become an extra part of the problem, as you may think you will be judged for having anxiety when the signs could be noticed.
Rest assured while these symptoms are uncomfortable, they are actually your body doing its job, preparing itself for survival. It’s just that it’s being a little too helpful for our requirements when it gears up like this in social situations.
Social anxiety - what do you do?
When you’re feeling it, what do you notice you do? If you are in the thick of it, you may feel like running away, leaving places early, or avoiding the situation, or you may find yourself scanning for the nearest exit. You may avoid feared situations entirely or find yourself cancelling plans at the last minute with an excuse.
Your body posture may become ‘smaller’ as you attempt to hide, or perhaps you do hide in the corner or stick only with people you know. If you’re in public, you may often look down rather than make eye contact with others. Maybe you talk very quickly, or you speak very quietly, or perhaps you don’t say a word. You may find yourself overcompensating, trying too hard, or acting in a way that isn’t really you. Perhaps you have a crutch, such as alcohol to get you by.
Social anxiety - where’s your thinking?
You may find yourself analysing what to say, or focusing on how you are coming across. Your focus becomes very much on what others might be thinking of you, in terms of what you say, how you look or how you sound. You may worry before and during the event, and spend time after the event rating how badly it went… When you are worrying you may find yourself catastrophising, labelling yourself, comparing or jumping to conclusions about how others see you.
Wow - I’m even starting to feel quite anxious as I write this, and I’m imagining you might too, especially if you are familiar with any of these symptoms. So what can be done to manage social anxiety?
How does CBT help?
CBT looks at how your thoughts, emotions, behaviours and physical symptoms interact. As a CBT therapist in Bath, I work with my clients to explore how their anxiety is made more intense by their beliefs, thoughts and behaviours. By pulling all of this together, we can work on strategies to offer ways to break the cycle.
Often with social anxiety people can be experiencing a degree of shame and feeling unworthy or not good enough, so some of the therapy may be in learning to be compassionate to yourself in the face of difficulties. Often harsh self-criticism can keep social anxiety going and learning to support yourself in a nurturing way can be so important.
While working through understanding social anxiety, and learning supportive and calming techniques, we would begin to get you approaching situations which you may have previously avoided, and engaging socially while experimenting with new ways of behaving. Although at the start of therapy, this may seem daunting, many clients find this part of the therapy hopeful, even exciting (it’s true!) The aim is to begin to adapt and take on small social challenges as you work towards your chosen goal.
If you have social anxiety and would like support, you can find out more about me by exploring the site.
Ali Binns is a CBT therapist based in Bath. If you have social anxiety and would like support in overcoming this problem, you can find out more by exploring the site. Or feel free to get in touch by hitting the contact button.