Get to the root of your social fears—then conquer them once and for all.

By Maggie Seaver and Brittany Loggins
Updated May 18, 2020
Advertisement
Getty Images

Social anxiety is not only debilitating, but often misunderstood and mischaracterized. People who suffer from social anxiety are likely all too familiar with being called “shy” or “introverted,” or even “cold” or “standoffish.” But social anxiety isn’t about being antisocial, rude, or disinterested when it comes to interacting with other individuals or in big crowds; it’s actually a legitimate mental disorder—and one that is possible to overcome, so you can start to find socializing less daunting and even more enjoyable.

Stephanie Parmely, PhD, a behavioral health psychologist with Dignity Health, lends her expertise to explain what social anxiety is, how to spot it, and how to cope with it—yes, even during this unique time of coronavirus-imposed social distancing.

What is social anxiety?

As the name suggests, social anxiety is a relatively common type of anxiety disorder that rears its head in social situations—or even at the mere idea of public gatherings or individual interactions. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 7 percent of Americans struggle with a social phobia.

“The irrational beliefs that accompany social anxiety usually revolve around fear—fear of being judged by others, fear of humiliation, fear of being embarrassed, fear of offending someone or fear of being the center of attention,” Parmely says. To avoid confronting these pent-up fears, she explains, “people with social anxiety avoid social situations such as going to school or work, starting conversations, eating in front of people, using public restrooms, entering rooms, going to parties, dating, speaking in public, talking to strangers, and making eye contact.”

Parmely also explains that social anxiety can manifest in myriad physical symptoms, from the seemingly minimal—blushing, increased heart rate, and sweating—all the way up to nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, and “out of body” feelings.

For some, their social anxiety doesn’t manifest itself as the above symptoms in traditional social situations, but instead as a sort of performance anxiety. There’s a discomfort of being watched or judged, not meeting perceived or actual standards, or messing up in front of others. Performing under a spotlight—whether it’s literally performing on stage for an audience, shooting a free throw on the basketball court, or presenting at work—causes severe, often debilitating, anxiety that can, paradoxically, be what hinders them from performing their best.

Having social anxiety doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shy—and vice versa.

This range of symptoms should be a major indicator that having social anxiety is different from, and goes far beyond, generally shiness. Parmely goes on to explain that they’re different in several ways, including how being shy and being anxious are defined in psychological and biological terms. Shyness, she explains, is considered a personality trait— and it doesn’t necessarily denote negative emotions in social situations. “People who are shy don’t view their shyness as a bad thing,” Parmely explains. “People with social anxiety often feel that it’s debilitating.” You can be shy without feeling social anxiety, and vice versa. Or you could be shy and socially anxious, or vice versa—you could be neither.

Who tends to suffer from social anxiety?

Parmely notes that, while people who have extroverted personalities can absolutely suffer from social anxiety, it’s more often introverted people who experience it. That said, as with all mental disorders, someone’s genetic makeup—rather than personality type—is the more probable determinant of whether or not they’ll experience social anxiety.

“Social anxiety is linked to an overactive amygdala, the part of the brain that triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response,” Parmely says. “It’s common in people with a history of trauma from abuse, bullying, and teasing—any chronic triggering of the fear response in the brain predisposes an individual to anxieties in the future.” However, those without notable traumatic histories can and do experience it as well.

Are there ways to overcome it?

While there are effective medications used to treat social anxiety, Parmely says there are also many helpful, proven techniques to help people manage and even conquer their personal social phobias.

“The most important way to overcome social anxiety is to develop coping skills for reducing the physiological symptoms while working on gradually facing the things that trigger the anxiety,” says Parmely. “The best body-brain techniques are those that target the limbic center of the brain, where the amygdala is, which is responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory.”

Believe it or not, your brain is capable of training itself to reframe perceived threats (like a room full of people at a cocktail party) and its reaction to these stressors (the panic you feel physically and emotionally when you enter said cocktail party). It takes practice, patience, and often help from a therapist. A mental health professional who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), for example, can work with you to build skills like recognizing what exactly triggers your social anxiety; unpacking why you experience these symptoms; learning to observe, accept, and allow it to pass—without judgment; and reorienting the way you perceive and react to triggering situations.

If therapy doesn’t feel like the right move for you—maybe you’re working through a lower-stakes or one-off situation—there are ways to talk yourself through moments that many people find anxiety-inducing, from job interviews to big presentations. Here are some tricks for getting through five daunting social situations (emotionally) unscathed.

1. Giving a speech.

Trying to ignore those public speaking nerves will make them worse. Instead of pretending everything’s fine, take a second to stop, breathe, and say to yourself, “OK, this is happening. My heart is beating quickly and I’m nervous, but I’ll be fine.” A moment of acknowledgement and acceptance can be extremely effective.

And while you’re at the podium: Couple the first line of your speech with some kind of physical gesture, like gesturing toward the person who introduced you while thanking them. This small movement can help channel and release some of that nervous energy.

2. Eating solo at a restaurant.

The truth: Most people aren’t focusing on you. In fact, Barbara Markway, a psychologist and author, reassures that people generally spend more time preoccupied with themselves than they do scrutinizing others.

Bring a book or have an article ready to read on your phone for something else to focus on (other than yourself). Finally, practice. “Go to a coffee shop or a diner and sit by yourself for an hour each week,” suggests Florence Falk, a psychoanalyst and author. “Once you’re used to being alone, you’ll start to enjoy it.

3. Interviewing for a job.

Being extremely well-prepared is a surefire (albeit tedious) way to bust pre-interview jitters. Not just researching the company and interviewer, but writing down and practicing answers to potential questions. Corporate coach Craig Harrison says to “keep your voice low and steady―this helps keep your heart from racing by forcing you to focus on your breathing.” Don’t forget to ask your interviewer questions. Not only will you seem smart and prepared, but it’ll take some of the focus off of you.

4. Asking someone on a date.

Put things in perspective—and lower the stakes—by asking yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” By redefining your expectations, you’ll feel a big sense of accomplishment for simply summoning the courage to ask someone out. There’s nothing wrong with baby steps.

5. Attending a social event alone.

“Before you arrive, think of a half-dozen things you can talk about,” says Don Gabor, a communications coach and the author of How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. Books and movies are always relatable topics. You might not realize (probably because you hate it), but many people like talking about themselves—ask a question (“How was your trip to Iceland?” or “How did you get into X industry?”) and let them run with it. If you’re worried someone will bring up a subject you want to avoid, practice some answers and keep them in your back pocket so you’re not caught off guard.

Don't let social distancing be an excuse to withdraw completely.

Since one major component of overcoming social anxiety is, well, immersing yourself in social situations, Parmely recommends that people continue to work on it even if they’re in self-quarantine due to COVID-19.

“While it may seem ideal to stay away from groups [due to quarantine], their anxiety will only grow if they avoid the things they’re most anxious about,” Parmely confirms. “People with social anxiety need to connect with people in their groups as much as possible and seek help from a therapist via telehealth to ensure they are coping with their anxiety appropriately.”

Unfortunately, those with social anxiety must work against their instincts to improve. The more you retreat, the worse social anxiety can get; but the good news is, the more you put yourself out there, the easier it becomes each time.

Here are some low-pressure ways to stay connected with loved ones while sheltering in place.