Social anxiety, also sometimes known as social phobia, is a condition in which you experience high levels of anxiety about being criticized by or judged in a negative way by others. In some surveys as many as 10% of people have been found to suffer from the condition, although it was not commonly recognized as a form of anxiety disorder until the 1980s. If you suffer from social anxiety then you may experience some or all of the following:
- Extreme worry that in public places such as at meetings, work or when shopping that other people will be watching you and finding fault with you
- Severe feelings of inferiority or inadequacy and a sense that other people are more intelligent than you or that you have nothing to say to them that will be of value
- Fear of going into a situation where you are expected to contribute to a discussion or give a presentation
- Extreme sensitivity to criticism from others
- Physical symptoms such as sweating, blushing, stammering or shaking when thinking about having to take part in a situation about which you are nervous.
- Perfectionist tendencies – believing that unless you to do something perfectly you have failed
What can you do to if you suffer from social anxiety?
There are a number of steps which you can take if you suffer from social anxiety to help you gradually gain control of your situation so that the negative feelings and experiences you have will diminish:
One thing that can be useful is to learn some relaxation techniques, for example
• Help to bring your body and mind more regularly into a state of relaxation and calm by practising simple relaxation exercises, ideally on a regular basis to establish a steady relaxing routine at least in part of your life.
For example you might begin each morning by spending 10 minutes in a comfortable environment doing a breathing exercise. One of the recommended ways to practise breathing is to do what is called diaphragmatic breathing, as follows: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in through your nose slowly, allowing your stomach to swell, pushing out the hand that is resting on it and then gently exhaling to allow your stomach to subside. If the hand on your chest is moved by your breath rather than the hand on your stomach then you are not breathing through your diaphragm, so practise again until it is the stomach which moves. Count your breaths one by one as you breathe in and out.
• Practice a similar short breathing exercise at times when you are feeling anxious or before going into a situation which you dread.
Cognitive behavioral therapy or coaching can also be helpful in teaching you techniques which you can practice to deal with the negative and anxious thoughts which are leading you to become worried and stressed.
For example, if you suffer from social anxiety you might have a tendency to mind read – that is to say, you imagine what other people will think (imagining that they will think something negative about you). Try writing down these thoughts prior to going into the problematic situation and then write down some alternative thoughts that you might say to yourself to counter the mind reading thoughts.
For example, if you are going into a social situation where you are meeting people you do not know, you might have the thought: “They will see that I am stupid and will laugh at me”. Write this down and then next to it write something that you can say to challenge or question this thought in a realistic way. For example, you might write down the following challenge: “Some people there will be more concerned with their own problems to notice, even if I do say something stupid, and others may be sympathetic.” When you go into the situation remind yourself of that challenge to help you get through the situation.
This is just one of numerous techniques you can use to help yourself in difficult situations. At first they may seem artificial or you may find it difficult to believe the new thoughts you are trying to teach yourself. This is normal. You are retraining your mind to think in a different and more constructive way. Try to take things patiently, step by step, and if you need support seek help from a coach specializing in this particular area.