Because our conversations and interactions are paramount
You’re invited to a social gathering, out of the blue, by a good mate of yours. Before you can check your schedule, your mind is already at the gathering. You envisage yourself in a new place surrounded by strangers who are quietly passing judgement on your every action. You accept the invitation to respect your friend’s request, but you spend most of your idle time ruminating about all the different ways the night could go wrong. The next few days are dizzying as you attempt to wrap your head around every possible interaction and every factor that could potentially affect how people may perceive you.
What if I don’t know anyone there? What if no one wants to talk to me? Or if I embarrass myself? The what-ifs surrounding every potential scenario and interaction overwhelm you. Instead of attempting the impossible task of seeing into the future, you instead rack your brain over what excuse might free you of the commitment you’ve already made to your friend. All of this worrying is taking a toll on your sleep schedule, your work ethic and even your personal relationships, and the night hasn’t even begun!
This is an example of social anxiety in action and might describe how someone with social anxiety might react after being invited to an event. To someone with social anxiety, every action in the company of others can feel like stepping out onto a stage with a full audience. During your performance, all eyes are on you and every slip-up is being quietly vilified by the people around you.
Much like an actual performance, you rehearse future interactions you might have with others before they happen, to try to ease your nerves. You soon realise (or remember) that the nuances of social interactions are almost impossible to predict. Instead of feeling calmer, your anxiety intensifies in the face of absolute uncertainty. Your attempts to seize control of the situation, and in turn, your anxiety, backfire.
It might be obvious to others that this critical audience and the performance they’re supposedly engrossed in are illusory. However, these imagined judgements often come with an unshakable element of truth to the socially anxious person, and this spell can be hard to break—especially without some form of outside help.
The first step in breaking this spell is having the ability to identify social anxiety in ourselves and in others. With close ties to depression, this ability will be helpful in improving overall mental wellbeing. Symptoms of social anxiety can manifest physically such as with nausea, increased heart rate, difficulty speaking, excessive sweating, and trembling or shaking.
On top of these symptoms, there are observable patterns that have been associated with social anxiety. Although one of these symptoms alone might not signify social anxiety, if they start to add up, it might be worth considering social anxiety as the culprit. Look out for these if you think you or a close one might be under the spell of social anxiety:
Heavy dependence on alcohol in social situations. Alcohol is our social lubricant of choice. A few drinks can help us relax after a stressful week and even help us mingle with new people. A keenness to get on the beers isn’t always problematic, however, when social anxiety becomes too overwhelming, some people will use alcohol as a crutch to ward off anxious thoughts.
Skipping school or work. Like depression, social anxiety can result in an active avoidance from the activities and people that imbue our lives with meaning. When social anxiety puts our minds into overdrive in social settings, we tend to avoid them where we can--even when it puts our livelihoods in jeopardy.
Heavily censoring yourself. Social anxiety can make every utterance seem like a target for vilification. If you catch yourself becoming more and more reticent, consider that social anxiety might be stymying your ability to let your thoughts and emotions flow freely.
Worrying intensely about social events. Harboring feelings of anxiety leading up to new social situations is normal, however when these anxious thoughts become intense, excessive, and impede on your day-to-day activities, this is when it can become a bigger problem.
Having trouble speaking. When social anxiety puts our minds into overdrive, it can be hard to verbalise our thoughts in a coherent manner. Tripping over words or not responding in a timely manner may be a sign of social anxiety.
Anxiety disorders don’t just complicate social situations. Intense and persistent anxiety can be felt over an assortment of things, such as running late to an appointment, or even for no apparent reason at all. This begs the question: how can we help to break the spell of anxiety? Here’s what the experts have to say:
Forgive yourself. Anxiety can be brutal. When you eventually make a mistake—as we all do—your inner voice is quick to dish out self-directed comments that are far from encouraging. Accepting the fact that you’re only human and that mistakes are an inevitable part of life can help take the heat off, as well as cultivate a better relationship with yourself.
Don’t be afraid to do things badly. Although natural talent and luck play important roles in the acquisition of new skills, the best way to learn is through experience. However, anxiety can make attempting something new daunting, as the possibility of failure is almost guaranteed and oftentimes too difficult to bear. It’s important to notice that failure is a necessary stage of development and without doing something badly at first, you might miss out on a level of mastery you never knew you were capable of.
Treat yourself like someone you care about. Similar to the second rule in the best-selling book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, this piece of wisdom is crucial in cultivating a healthy and proactive attitude towards self-care and actualising your potential for greatness. Being all too aware of your flaws and shortcomings can make it hard for you to command self-respect, but it’s always better to root for yourself than to be your own worst enemy.
Have a strong sense of purpose. In a game of footy, players are able to withstand and play through injuries that would otherwise be debilitating off the field. The reason this pain loses its punch is because the players are focused on something bigger; their goal within the game acts as an analgesic. The same is true in life; if you are focused on a meaningful goal, worry and doubt become less potent as the allegiance towards your goals inexorably compels you towards something great.
Although it's normal to have anxious feelings before a job interview or even meeting new people, when this anxiety becomes intense, persistent and interferes in our everyday life, this is when it can become troublesome.
In its later stages especially, social anxiety can be hard to negotiate with and nothing compares to the difference professional help can make in freeing you from its grips. Even so, we can often find utility in understanding what social anxiety is, how we can identify it, the impact it can have and what we can do about it.
With rolling lockdowns already placing significant stress on our social relationships, the last thing we need is for social anxiety to make us reluctant or hesitant to connect with people whose company could help us soldier through these difficult times and help us keep a grip on our sanity.
Even outside our current circumstances, social anxiety can be very damaging to our social connections, driving a wedge between us and the people whose company we value. To stay in touch with people who bring us happiness and meaning, keeping social anxiety at bay is crucial. This is why being able to identify the signs of social anxiety and staying vigilant when it starts to take control of our lives is important.
In the throes of intense social anxiety, it can be almost impossible not to entertain, and act in accordance with every anxious urge, despite the shame, helplessness and exhaustion that follows in the pursuit to pacify an uneasy mind. However, seeing social anxiety as separate from your personality, identifying the harm it’s capable of inflicting and finding ways to manage and overcome it will put you on the path to eliminating it for good.
To get in touch with mental health support services, click here.