Almost everyone feels anxious at times, from situations as varied as their first bungee jump, first time standing in front of an audience to deliver a presentation, or starting a new job.
However, people experiencing social anxiety (also referred to as social phobia), feel overwhelmingly anxious in many social situations. Their anxiety can make them feel so uncomfortable that they seek to avoid social interaction.
And this can have a massive impact on some or all aspects of their life.
Social anxiety is not uncommon. Beyond Blue suggest that “11 per cent of the Australian population experiences social phobia during their lifetime, with just under 5 per cent experiencing social phobia in any 12-month period”.
Social anxiety has been an area of interest in recent years with researchers and mental health professionals seeking to increase our understanding of the condition and to develop strategies to help people manage it. So, what do we know?
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is not a disease. It is a common response to situations that we feel may be physically or emotionally risky. This response, or warning mechanism, has helped humans avoid potentially dangerous situations for millennia. In contemporary society, feelings of anxiety can alert us to issues we need to deal with (a relationship, job stress, financial issues).
Studies suggest that anxiety can also act as a motivator, encouraging us to put extra effort into our professional, recreational and social activities.
So, anxiety can actually be good. However, it is not good when feelings of anxiety can become so strong that they begin to interfere with and affect our daily life. This is when normal anxiety can become an anxiety disorder.
Managing Social Anxiety
While social anxiety is not a disease, it is a mental health problem that sees people feeling constant, intense anxiety in social situations. They fear being laughed at, judged negatively or criticised. For some, this applies to most social contexts. For others, social anxiety manifests in specific social contexts. Public speaking is one of the most common of these. For those struggling with social anxiety, everyday activities such as going out with friends, reporting to a work meeting, even shopping can seem intimidating.
Since anxiety is a response to perceived social ‘threats’, the aim is not to cure it, but to manage your anxiety it so that it operates positively, continuing to prompt us to avoid risky situations and support our performance but not generating debilitating responses that stop us participating in normal social and work life. There are a number of strategies that can be used to manage social anxiety.
Strategies to manage social anxiety
1. Understand that anxiety is natural
As noted, anxiety is a normal response to perceived danger. Concern about what others think of us is natural, too. We are a social species. We want to belong. However, we should understand that it is not normal if these responses and concerns begin to impact on our everyday social interactions.
2. Challenge your underlying beliefs
It is not the social situation that causes anxiety, but our perceptions about it. Thus, one person feels fine about public speaking and another feels extremely, often unnecessarily, anxious. Therefore, a first step to managing anxiety is to become aware of how we are thinking about the situation and challenging those thoughts. This doesn’t mean thinking positively, it means thinking realistically.
Example: You are giving a presentation at a meeting. You think it will be a disaster, that you’ll forget important points, that people will ask questions you can’t answer, will think you don’t know what you’re talking about, will not respect you. They might even laugh at you.
Realistic correction: the presentation will probably go well. I’m usually articulate and I am familiar with the presentation material. Someone might ask a question that I can’t answer but I just have to acknowledge that. Nobody knows everything.
Consider your anxiety-producing thoughts and try correcting them.
3. Meditate – focus on the present
Meditation seems to have a positive impact on our physical and mental health, contributing to improved outcomes ranging from reducing anxiety and stress to boosting our immune system and helping us sleep better. In particular, mindfulness meditation, with its emphasis on the present, can help us deal more satisfactorily with social situations. There are many videos, blogs, and apps on the Internet exploring how mindfulness meditation can help manage social anxiety.
4. Don’t get nervous – get excited
A young athlete was asked at the start of a race if she felt anxious. She replied ‘No, I’m excited’.
Feelings associated with anxiety and excitement are almost identical. It is how we interpret those feelings that are important. If you think, “I’m getting anxious”, you may create a negative mindset. If you think “I’m getting excited,” you’ll feel more prepared and capable.
An experiment conducted by Alison Wood Brooks from Harvard Business School found that reframing anxiety as excitement could help us deal better with situations associated with social anxiety. So, the next time you find yourself feeling a little anxious in a social context, try telling yourself “I am excited.”
5. Face the situation
Exposure therapy, when supervised properly, is thought by many mental health experts to be a very effective strategy for managing social anxiety and many specific phobias. The idea behind exposure therapy is to slowly build up confidence and the ability to cope by gradually facing the anxiety causing situations.
For example, an individual identifies social situations that trigger anxiety. They imagine themselves in one of the less frightening situations long enough for their anxiety level to drop. Once they feel comfortable in the imagined situation, they slowly become exposed to the real situation. These strategies will work most effectively if the individual is aware of, and does not employ, avoidance behaviours. Professional support is an effective way to minimise this possibility.
So the answer to treating social anxiety is not to cure it – it’s to find suitable and effective ways to manage your anxiety so that it can have a positive impact on your life, rather than a negative one.
Sometimes professional support is required to help you take the first step in addressing mental health challenges such as social anxiety. If you’re ready to speak to a psychologist, reach out to our friendly team at Counselling in Melbourne today and book an appointment.