What is social anxiety?
If you have an extreme fear of being judged in social situations, if you have a sadistic focus on all the things that can go wrong – nervously blurting out everything you never wanted to say aloud just to fill conversational lulls, or if you scrutinise all the awkward things you think you did or said after the fact, you could have social anxiety. A little social anxiety is normal for everyone, but when it becomes abnormal, it’s a self-serving narcissist hell-bent on your full attention. Social anxiety is especially tough to manage because it’s not just one thing. And it’s a bit contradictory – you have a general distaste for peopling, but also an internal need for … people. But on your terms, and in limited doses.
Social anxiety is contagious. Sort of. Researchers are learning that anxiety disorders run in families, and that they have a biological basis, much like allergies and diabetes. Anxiety disorders typically develop from a complex set of risk factors that include genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life experiences. Anxiety, which is equally common among men and women, typically begins around age 13. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those with a disorder receive treatment.
All of this supports a rationale for keeping a blank social calendar from an underground doomsday bunker. However, you can get out there and actually enjoy it! Here’s how.
Throw a counterpunch
Do not give in to what the anxiety is driving you to do. Instead, acknowledge it, and say, “Hey, inner angst, I’m the shot caller and I came to party!” Whatever it is that counters the anxiety, do it. Each time you parry your fear, you are ‘rewiring’ your brain and weakening anxiety’s hold on you. According to clinical professor of psychology, Dr Robert Leahy, social anxiety that’s left untreated is associated with an increased risk for alcohol abuse, depression, loneliness, decreased occupational advancement and the increased likelihood of remaining single. That’s no way to live! And that’s why it’s so important to feel and face your anxiety. You can actually do things while anxious and realise that nothing bad happens.
Many studies demonstrate the success of exposure-based therapies for anxiety disorders, according to a large research review Dr Johanna S. Kaplan and Dr David F. Tolin, published in Psychiatric Times. We tend to avoid what frightens us and, in turn, are frightened by what we avoid. To begin to remedy this negative cycle, you can safely expose yourself to your triggers by creating an exposure hierarchy. Write down scenarios that cause you anxiety in order of severity. Perform the easiest behaviour first, and gradually move down the list. Your hierarchy might start with asking a stranger for directions and end with asking your boss for a raise. It doesn’t matter if your boss laughs you out the door. It matters that you actually asked. Social anxiety wants you timid and poor, but you can outsmart it.