What is social anxiety? Feeling sick and shaky before a meeting or presentation at work. Constant thoughts that everyone is watching us and thinking badly of us. Avoiding social events because the thought of having to meet and make conversation with new people makes us stressed and panicky. Lying awake at night going over everything we’ve done that day worrying that we’ve said the wrong thing or made a fool of ourselves. These are common experiences for people who have social anxiety.
Experiences like these can really have a negative impact on our ability to live our lives to the full. We may find ourselves becoming more and more isolated as we retreat into the places we feel safe. Our work may suffer as we avoid going after opportunities or promotions for fear of having to take the lead and be seen and heard by others. We may also find our social life and relationships suffer. It’s hard to keep friends or partners if we constantly turn down invitations to go out and make excuses to keep to ourselves. Life can become exhausting as we constantly plan ahead and find reasons to avoid situations where we feel exposed and vulnerable.
When left unchecked, social anxiety can sometimes seem like it’s taking over our lives. However, there are some simple facts to keep in mind that can help us better understand how to cope with this type of anxiety:
1. Social anxiety is surprisingly common. Nearly 14% of Irish adults will experience it at some time in their lives. It’s common for people to feel alone or stigmatised when experiencing this type of anxiety but remember that many other people have felt the same way. Understanding this can help us feel less alone or hopeless.
2. Physical symptoms often go hand in hand with social anxiety. It is common to experience symptoms such as hot flushing, sweating, shaking, fast heartbeat, upset stomach, headaches and even dizziness. It is important to understand that while they are unpleasant, these symptoms are not actually dangerous. They are linked to the adrenalin response in our body which is triggered when we feel anxious or threatened. Telling ourselves that the sensations we have are not dangerous and will pass can help avoid increasing our levels of anxiety.
3. Practice makes perfect. It might sound strange but when experiencing social anxiety, it can be helpful to practice small interactions everyday. Often when we feel anxiety we hide away and avoid social exchanges where possible. However, this only reinforces our fears and increases the anxious response when we are put into a social situation that we cannot avoid. By making ourselves do small, manageable things everyday we increase our tolerance and reduce our automatic adrenalin response to stress. Building on this little by little we should gradually be able to face more demanding and stressful situations.
4. How we speak to ourselves is important. Notice the thoughts we are having about ourselves. People with social anxiety often feel ashamed and blame themselves for not being able to cope more easily with day to day interactions. This can often lead to negative thoughts and constant self-criticism. This is painful to live with and can also lead to increasingly low-self-esteem which can worsen anxiety. Finding some compassion for ourselves and taking time to notice our positive points can be helpful in increasing self-esteem. It can take time to change how we speak to ourselves so being patient and consistent is important.
5. Releasing excess energy can be helpful. Research has found that regular exercise can help alleviate the symptoms of social anxiety. It reduces overall stress levels, increases confidence and floods the body with “feel good” endorphins. It doesn’t matter what you choose to do, whether it’s going to a gym or just a brisk walk in the park. Remember it’s easier to maintain something if we find it enjoyable. So find some exercise we can enjoy and make it a part of a regular routine.
The symptoms of social anxiety are tough to live with and sadly many people struggle with them alone. Taking these few simple steps can help us learn to cope better with how we are feeling.
I’m always happy to talk about how life can be better.
Make a change today.
Have a great week, Jane.
Newbridge, Co. Kildare
Portlaoise, Co. Laois