What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder – sometimes referred to as social phobia – is a recognised mental health condition that can affect your self-confidence, relationships, work and everyday activities. For example, you may have a fear of social or performance situations, or worry about what other people think of you. If you have social anxiety disorder, you might feel extremely uncomfortable in certain situations and worry a lot in the run-up to them. You may even go out of your way to avoid situations or events that you know you’ll find particularly stressful.
It’s unclear exactly how common social anxiety disorder is, but it does appear to be one of the most common anxiety-related problems. So if you’re worried about coping in a social situation, you’re certainly not the only one!
What triggers social anxiety?
If you have a fear of social or performance situations, understanding what triggers your symptoms can help you to cope with them. Common triggers may include:
- meeting strangers or new people
- having to speak in public or in meetings
- being the centre of attention
- attending social gatherings or parties
- being observed or watched
- being teased or criticised
Events like these can trigger high levels of anxiety, causing physical symptoms such as sweating, flushing, increased heart rate, trembling and nervousness.
Tips for coping with and reducing social anxiety
For most of us, dealing with different environments is a part of daily life, and despite how much you may try to avoid them, they will eventually arise. When it comes to social anxiety, often the best way to fight your fears is to face them. It might sound scary, but being exposed – in a controlled way – to situations that cause you anxiety may actually help you to overcome that anxiety. Here are some tips for coping in different environments.
Breathe away anxiety
When you feel yourself becoming anxious, try some gentle breathing exercises to bring you back to the present moment. Breathing slowly and deeply from your tummy, and focusing on having a steady breath, can help to slow your heart rate down and in turn, your thoughts.
Don’t put yourself under too much pressure
The key to exposing yourself to uncomfortable situations is to do so gradually over time. For example, if you’ve been invited to a work party and feel like it’s going to be way outside your comfort zone, don’t put yourself under pressure to go. If you’re experiencing peer pressure from your colleagues, this is something you should be able to discuss confidentially with your line manager.
Focus on things that you like
Get involved in hobbies, activities or work-related projects that you enjoy. When you participate in work or social activities that you like and are good at, your confidence and wellbeing increases. It also allows you to mix with people who share similar interests, which in turn can result in you having more comfortable and easy conversations.
Make time for breaks
Social anxiety attacks can often occur when people are forced to be in situations that they feel uncomfortable in for extended periods of time. If this is the case, it’s important to take time out for breaks. This may involve a trip to the bathroom, or a quick walk around the block to clear your head, and can make a big difference to how you feel.
Find someone to confide in
See if you can find someone to confide in. This may be someone you get on particularly well with, or if in a work environment it could be a colleague who experiences similar anxieties. You may find that you could provide mutual support throughout what would otherwise be an uncomfortable experience. Remember, you won’t be able to take that person everywhere, and in the long term, this ‘safety seeking’ behaviour may be counterproductive. But if you’re trying to build up your tolerance of social situations in the short term, you may find it helpful.
Develop an understanding of your triggers
Try developing an awareness of the above warning signs of when your anxiety flares up, as this can help you to take positive action. Having an accurate understanding of what causes your anxiety can also help you to conquer any irrational fears that you may be experiencing. So, it could help to spend some time thinking about how you behave in certain social situations and how you’re feeling. This in turn may help to provide you with a clearer picture of the problems that you want to overcome.
When to get help for social anxiety
If your social anxiety is causing you serious difficulties, you should make an appointment to see your GP. You’ll be able to discuss your concerns with them in detail, and decide if you might benefit from treatment.