Humans are social creatures; we automatically mirror each other’s mannerisms and emotions and even brain activity during interactions, and numerous studies show correlations between happiness and social connectedness. While not everyone needs or desires the same level of socialization, it remains a key component for life satisfaction.
It’s not unusual to feel uneasy about new social situations. Going on a first date, giving a presentation in front of a group of unfamiliar people or attending a party where you only know the host may understandably cause a little stress. In most cases, this feeling passes fairly quickly, and it doesn’t keep someone from engaging socially and completing necessary tasks.
However, for some people, everyday interactions cause significant, disruptive anxiety. This may stem from extreme self-consciousness and a deep-seated fear of being negatively judged by others and prevent the individual from carrying on simple conversations and taking care of necessary errands and tasks. Ultimately, this may cause problems at work or school and lead to social isolation, which researchers connect with a slew of threats to mental and physical health.
Understanding the Fear of Social Situations
Social anxiety, or the fear of social situations, affects about 7% of the U.S. population in any given year. In general, females are a little more likely to experience this condition than males, with 8% of females reporting a fear of social situations compared to 6.1% of males, and over 12% of adults experience social anxiety at some point in their lives. Altogether, this condition represents the third largest mental health care problem in the world.
Social anxiety disorder is an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, and it can be crippling, preventing individuals living with this disorder from enjoying new experiences and building social connections. Contrary to appearances, those living with an extreme fear of social situations want to make friends and create meaningful relationships, but this disorder keeps them from participating in normal interactions. In some cases, people with social anxiety may be seen as shy, quiet or withdrawn, or even unfriendly and disinterested, discouraging others from working to overcome the individual’s initial aloofness.
There are a number of situations that can trigger strong stress responses for someone living with social situation anxiety. These may include:
- Making a phone call
- Being introduced to someone new
- Being the central focus in a group setting
- Having to speak in front of a group of people
- Being observed while carrying out a task
- Making and holding eye contact
- Meeting with authority figures or anyone else they perceive to be higher than them in a social hierarchy
- Attending a party or group event
When facing these situations, individuals may experience:
- Muscle twitches
- Increased heart rate
- Dry mouth
- High levels of fear or nervousness
More often than not, people living with social situation anxiety know that their fears aren’t rational or justifiable. Unfortunately, knowing this isn’t enough to put an end to the anxiety and stress they experience in certain types of social situations. For that reason, social anxiety doesn’t go away on its own but often requires professional treatment.
Gradual Exposure Techniques for Social Anxiety
For those seeking strategies for conquering social anxiety, gradual exposure techniques can help to address the overwhelming fear an individual may experience with certain social situations. Mental health care specialists recognize exposure therapy as one of the most effective ways to address social anxiety, as it lets individuals face their fears in a safe, controlled setting with a decreased risk of unexpected challenges. Through these techniques, the individual begins facing stressful situations, beginning with the least challenging, and slowly becomes more comfortable with their triggers.
To work on building confidence in social settings, individuals may progress through gradual exposure techniques such as:
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
- Making scripted phone calls
- Going out in public and asking someone for the time
- Participating in an improv class or support group
- Role-playing social interactions with trusted friends or family members
- Making eye contact and talking with cashiers or wait staff
Cognitive Strategies for Conquering Social Fear
Because most people with social anxiety know their fears are unfounded, cognitive strategies alone may have limited effectiveness for building confidence in social settings. However, when used alongside gradual exposure techniques, they can help individuals be more mindful of their triggers and emotional responses, which is the first step in changing perceptions and patterns of thinking.
Pay Attention to Negative Thoughts
When someone is feeling uncomfortable in a social situation, it may be helpful for them to pinpoint exactly what their fear is, such as whether they’re afraid of sounding foolish or if they think others will negatively judge their appearance. By recognizing these negative thoughts, the individual can challenge them and replace them with thoughts that are more positive and realistic.
Learn to Accept Uncomfortable Emotions
While it may seem counterintuitive, one of the most effective ways to address anxiety is to learn to accept the discomfort it brings. For many people, anticipating the sweaty palms, jumbled thoughts and flustered emotions that social anxiety can bring can be as stressful as actually experiencing the discomfort. Learning to be at peace with anxiety and allowing oneself to fully experience those uncomfortable emotions can reduce the stress that accompanies it.
Turn the Focus Onto Other People
Rather than the individual focusing on their own perceived shortcomings and awkwardness, it’s helpful to turn the focus to other people. By engaging in active listening, asking follow-up questions and showing a genuine interest in what others are saying, individuals can shift the focus off themselves and enjoy positive interactions with less stress.
Set Realistic Expectations
Many people with social anxiety have a perception that everyone else glides through social interactions without stress or awkwardness. However, this often isn’t the case – not every interaction goes perfectly or is free from unexpected comments that are challenging to respond to. The good news is that most people aren’t keeping a tally of awkward encounters, and most people are gracious when they see someone struggling to connect. Setting realistic expectations and recognizing that not every interaction has to flow like a movie script can provide freedom from stress.
Building Confidence and Thriving in Social Settings
Coping with social fears isn’t a skill that develops overnight, but with the right approach, individuals can learn to overcome social anxiety and enjoy positive interactions. In some cases, working through these steps alongside a trained professional who can provide helpful feedback along the way can be effective in helping to address social situation anxiety. Mental health care professionals use a variety of therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy, support groups and neuro-rehabilitation to help individuals reframe their anxiety and retrain their brains.
To learn more about overcoming social anxiety and to get information on Restore Mental Health’s approach to managing symptoms, contact us today.