Social Anxiety medical definition – a fear of social situations
Claire definition – the idea of social gathering or being the centre of attention makes you feel sick with dread. You’re convinced that you’ll make a fool of yourself and be judged negatively by others.
I’ve had social anxiety since the age of fifteen, so I’d say that I’m almost an expert by now!
The fear of being evaluated negatively by other people, can make me feel self conscious, inferior, and embarrassed. In the past any focus or attention directed my way would send me into a frenzy, which triggered physical symptoms.
Common physical symptoms
- Blushing – sometimes for no reason at all.
- Dry mouth
- Tense muscles
- Stuttering or mumbling
- Freezing – when asked to speak
As a teen I would blush crimson whenever someone merely said my name! Picture this scene:
Teacher: Claire, you’re homework was very good this week
Me: *Turns the colour of an angry tomato* – Thank you.
Teacher: *Looks confused* Are you ok Claire?
Me: *Turns almost purple* Yes I’m fine Miss, it’s just hot in here. *Thinks* “oh my God I’m so embarrassed I could die.”
If you have social anxiety then you’re more likely to struggle with the following situations:
- Being the centre of attention – presentations, meetings, speeches, interviews etc.
- Being introduced to new people – particular those with authority
- Attending a party/gathering where you don’t know many people
- First dates
- Being watched while doing something – I can barely type my own name when someone is watching me.
Common thoughts that social anxiety sufferers have
- Everyone is going to think I’m an idiot/weird/boring/uncool
- I’m going to make a fool of myself
- What if nobody wants to talk to me
- They’ll think I’m ugly
- I won’t be able to think of anything interesting to say
- Why can’t I be confident and bubbly like everyone else
The cruel aspect of social anxiety is the way in which it controls your way of thinking. It doesn’t matter how many times family and friends tell you how smart and funny you are, you never believe them and instead choose to believe those menacing thoughts in your head.
The good news
Those negative thoughts are the equivalent of a bully, and like a bullies you don’t have to put up with them. This is something that you CAN get under control.
Here’s a classic example of how I used to react before a social event:
9am – I have to go to Sam’s party tonight. *feels sick.* Try and think about something else.
1pm – I’ve spent the last four hours thinking about tonight. Oh God I can picture it now, I won’t be able to think of anything interesting to say. Nobody will want to talk to me, or if they do they’ll think I’m boring.
4pm – Perhaps I can ring and cancel? I’m sure she’ll understand, I’ll just say that I have a tummy bug. . . But then I’ll be letting her down, Oh Christ I don’t know what to do.
6pm – *Didn’t eat dinner due to nerves.*
7pm – *Thinks* You’re being picked up in an hour, GET READY. You can’t cancel now it’s too late. I don’t like my dress and I can’t seem to get my hair right.
8pm – *Outside the house.* Oh my God I just want this to be over already. Why can’t I just be normal?
8:30pm – *Thinks* Sam’s friend Jenny is only chatting to me because she feels sorry for me, I can see it in her eyes. Lisa thinks I’m weird too, I can just tell.
11pm – *In the taxi home* I’m so exhausted. *Thinks about every conversation I had and critiques each one line by line* I can’t believe you said that to Mike, what an idiotic thing to do. He probably thought you were a complete loser.
For many years, this was truly my life, it was miserable. I was a slave to social anxiety because I repeated the same pattern time after time.
The most important thing on the road to recovery is to break the cycle. If you do the exact thing every day then nothing will change.
How to deal with social anxiety
First of all, I need you to accept something. . . having social anxiety is NOT YOUR FAULT. You are not a weak or feeble person. You were simply born this way. Some people are born with asthma or diabetes, you were born with Social Anxiety Disorder.
To be clear, tackling this isn’t going to be easy, it will take hard work and dedication. But trust me, it will be 100% worth it.
First things first, in order to really take the bull by the horns then you’re going to need some help.
Here are my suggestions:
- Go and visit your GP. Book a double appointment so that you can really discuss the problem. Social anxiety is a genuine disorder and although I can’t guarantee a ‘tea and sympathy’ approach, GPs will take it seriously. Write a list of your physical symptoms in advance to keep yourself concise, (doctors appreciate this).
There are a variety of medications that can be taken for anxiety. The most common being SSRIs – basically low dose antidepressants that are non addictive. Please don’t freak out about the word antidepressants, it sounds far more extreme than the reality. Anxious people lack Serotonin in their brains (they don’t have enough neurotransmitters, which can cause problems) and SSRIs just help to level this out and keep everything running smoothly. Are there side effects? Of course. Are they horrendous? Not compared to the years of anxiety that you’ve faced. Your doctor should talk you through them and advise what to expect. A good tip is to start taking them on a Friday night, most side effects last forty eight hours, so you should be ok by Monday.
Beta Blockers are also common and they are very effective at treating physical symptoms, such as blushing and shaking. These are generally just taken before a stressful situation, rather than daily. They work by slowing your heart rate down, (in a safe way), thereby reducing the physical symptoms. Believe me, they work. The joy of not having a red face during a meeting is wondrous!
Please don’t be spooked by meds, the reality is.. sometimes we just need a little help. However, be sure to consult your GP and follow their advice.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is fairly well known these days and can be very effective in treating social anxiety. The basic principle is to challenge the negative thoughts that circulate through the brain and rationalise them using key techniques. The negative thoughts = the bully, and dealing with those thoughts head on weakens the bully. You can request to see a CBT therapist on the NHS, but last I heard the waiting list was twelve weeks. Anxiety UK can offer huge discounts for members and they helped me to find a therapist in my price range. Alternatively, there are a variety of books and online content available.
- Positive refocus exercise – Ok this one sounds incredibly naff, so bare with me. The majority of the time when we think about an event we’re dreading we already picture it going badly. We imagine the scene, what will happen and how awful we will feel. This in turn triggers a negative emotional response which leaves us feeling already defeated. So why not turn this around and deliberately imagine the event going well? (Bear with me). Imagine smiling faces and even script the positive conversations that you will have. This will help to trigger positive emotions.
It’s far too easy to go to the dark side. When you need a quick boost try this exercise.
- Practice at home – Again a naff one, but again please bear with me. If you’re going to an event and worry that you’ll be lost for words, then maybe jot a few notes down in advance. You can do this discreetly on your phone e.g. “Have you got any holidays planned?” Or “Do you watch True Detective? What do you think of season two?” Practice greeting people in front of the mirror at home, with a smile and a strong posture.
A good friend of mine told me that her young son freezes when he has to introduce himself at school. So they practice at home, which I think is just fantastic! Mummy pretends to be a new person and Adam (her son) says, “hello my name is Adam, nice to meet you.” This helps to improve his confidence and makes him feel more comfortable about the real thing. Such a good idea, she’s a wonderful mum. This acceptance of his personality will benefit him so much as his grows. Just knowing that your family accept and love you for who you are is the ultimate security for a child.
We prepare for so much in life; exams, sports, interviews… so why not social interactions? There really is no shame in it.
- Exposure therapy – Once I got the basics under control this approach really helped me. The idea is to expose yourself to situations that make you uncomfortable in tiny steps. It helps to break the mould and free you from those chains of fear.
Other useful tools
My book! 🙂 – It focuses on my experiences with social anxiety & is packed with useful techniques. http://www.allmadhere.co.uk/shop/
Vlogger ‘LikeKristen’ – an incredible vlogger who tackles everything from panic attacks to self harm. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqbNeeBXyD21OzwRySul5gw
David Carbonell is my God! The website design is terrible, but the content is solid. http://www.anxietycoach.com/socialanxietydisorder.html
Anxiety UK – Incredibly useful website. https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/get-help-now/anxietyinformation/anxiety-disorders/social-phobia-social-anxiety/
Headspace – a mindful meditation app. This isn’t for everyone, but it can be very effective. https://www.headspace.com/