Social anxiety (also known as “social phobia”) is characterized by intense fear of unfamiliar situations, particularly social settings that make a person feel self-conscious. This overwhelming feeling stems from the fear of being observed, criticized, or evaluated by others. For some, the mere mention or thought of a particular social situation can influence them to evade these scenarios at all cost to immediately reduce the anxiety. Some include:
- Attending social gatherings
- Using public restrooms
- Engaging in small talk
- Speaking up in a meeting
While it may seem like a rare condition, social anxiety ranks among the most common mental health conditions among Canadians: In 2009 and 2010, almost one in ten sought help for mood and anxiety disorders. Adolescent and adult females were more likely to get mental health assistance than the rest of the population.
Each person experiencing social phobia has different triggers. Other common anxiety-inducing situations are:
- Public speaking
- Being the center of attention
- Riding public transportation
- Going on a date
- Dining in public
- Taking exams
- Making phone calls
If left unaddressed, social anxiety can become a roadblock to building meaningful relationships with others and interfere with a productive daily routine. The good news is social phobia can be overcome with counselling and treatment. Therapy may not drive fear away fear overnight, but learning methods to change your way of thinking and being intentional in your behaviour are a great start.
Here are habits that you can practice daily to gradually overcome social anxiety:
- Confront negative thoughts – People who suffer from social anxiety can be preoccupied with negative thoughts that magnify their anxiousness and apprehension. Examples of these beliefs are: “People will think I’m stupid,” “Nobody will listen if I speak up,” “I will only embarrass myself,” and “I will look like a fool.” Edge out social anxiety by challenging these thoughts. Identify negative thought when you think about a social situation. Dismiss it, or replace it. For example, if you’re anxious about speaking up during a meeting, ask yourself a question like “Do I know for sure that my ideas don’t matter?” or tell yourself, “My suggestions might be validated by others if I share them.”
- Divert your focus – When we feel nervous, it is natural human behaviour to turn inwards and feel anxious. During such time, our focus on our physical reactions and sensations heightens; we may begin to think that others are paying additional attention to us. However, the more we focus on ourselves, the more nervous we become and anxiety increases. Before that happens, shift the intent outward: Concentrate on your environment. Do your best to engage with people nearby and try to have a genuine interaction. Focus on “being in the moment,” rather than worrying about what you’re going to say or do.
- Be more social – Make an effort to have more interactions with people; seek out social environments where you can feel comfortable. Look into taking a social skills enhancement class, volunteering in a community activity related to your hobbies and interests (e.g. walking dogs in a shelter, book fairs, cleanup drives). Seek out events that keep you engaged with others, allow you to connect with like-minded individuals, and provide opportunities for solitude or quiet when you feel overwhelmed.
- Face your fears – Overcome your anxiety by facing fear in social situations. Avoiding personal encounters may seem like a solution, but it will not liberate you from social anxiety disorder. The more you steer clear from a situation, the more you empower it to frighten you in the future. Start facing your fears head on by taking small, daily consistent steps. Start with a situation that you can handle then gradually expose yourself to more challenging ones. Don’t jump right into your biggest fear right away; this might reinforce your anxiety.
- Get a professional help – Talking to a professional and trusted therapist is an excellent first step towards a life with lessened anxiety. Psychologists can recommend various treatment options tailored to your mental and social needs. Sharing and talking about your worries and fears with a caring counsellor can be a relief. You can learn to see your situation from a different perspective and develop varied approaches for overcoming your anxiety.
If you or a loved one in the northern Toronto area is struggling with social anxiety disorder, book an appointment with York Region Psychological Services. Call us today at (416) 602-3230 for a caring consultation.