Social Anxiety Explained by Dr Nisha Sethi
Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach before giving a speech or going to an interview? Or, have you ever found yourself looking for an excuse to get out of meeting new people or confronting others about something they are doing that you do not like? Or, are you uncomfortable when you have to make a phone call or when you have to talk to friends in a group setting? If you have answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may have social anxiety.
So, what is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is basically a fear of social and/or performance situations that is driven by concern that others will judge us negatively. For some people, the anxiety is only present in specific situations (e.g., just when making speeches), and for others, the anxiety is present in several situations (e.g., when making speeches, being interviewed, being assertive, making phone calls, etc.). Also, the intensity of the anxiety can vary from person to person and from situation to situation. As you might have guessed, social anxiety is actually pretty common. I myself am anxious in certain social and/or performance situations!
What drives social anxiety?
There are a few different factors that may contribute to a person’s social anxiety. Some of these factors include:
• How we think about the situation: if you worry that others are going to make negative judgements about you (e.g., “They will think I’m stupid.”) and/or that it will be difficult to cope with the consequences of those judgements, then you are more likely to experience at least some social anxiety. For example, the person who thinks “I won’t know the right thing to say and people will laugh at me!” during their speech is more likely to feel anxious. Also, the person who has high standards for how they are to act/perform in front of others (e.g., “I must not stumble over my words.”) is more likely to feel anxious.
• How much we try to avoid the situation: when it comes to situations that frighten us, it is only natural that we would want avoid them as much as possible. Unfortunately though, avoidance is part of what maintains social anxiety because we deny ourselves the opportunity to confront our fears and disconfirm our negative beliefs about the situation. For example, the person who avoids being assertive will not be able to learn that they can be assertive and that the consequences of being assertive are not as bad as previously envisioned. Instead, they learn that they can temporarily reduce their anxiety by not being assertive, making them no more comfortable with being assertive in future if they ever need or want to be.
What do psychological treatments for social anxiety involve?
There is a great deal of evidence that supports the use of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) in effectively treating social anxiety. Examples of what is typically included in such a treatment are information on social anxiety from a psychological perspective, learning how to think more realistically about the consequences of being in different social situations, and building your confidence in social situations by facing your fears in a very gradual, structured way. My personal experience in treating clients who have social anxiety is that they typically respond well to CBT and they often find themselves engaging in all sorts of social activities without too much discomfort by the end of it!
How do I know if my social anxiety is bad enough to do something about?
First up, it is a good idea to talk to your GP and/or clinical psychologist who can help you figure out if some kind of treatment would be useful for you. Other things to consider are:
• how much you believe that the anxiety is starting to “control” what you do and do not do
• how intense the anxiety becomes for you; and
• how important it is to you that you are better able to manage your anxiety so you can do the things that you find meaningful.
Clark, D. M. (2001). A cognitive perspective on social phobia. In Crozier, W. R. & Alden, L. E. (Eds.), International Handbook of Social Anxiety: Concepts, Research and Interventions Relating to the Self and Shyness. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Turk, C.L., Heimberg, R. G., & Hope, D. A. (2001). Social anxiety disorder. In Barlow, D. H. (Ed.), Clinical Handbook of Psychological Disorders (3rd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.