For many people, social situations — especially unfamiliar ones — can be nerve-racking and uncomfortable. It’s normal to feel nervous, shy, and maybe even restless at a party full of new faces, or at a crowded convention you have to attend for work. Others, however, experience this kind of discomfort in everyday interactions, causing unpleasant physical symptoms that make socializing difficult, if not impossible.
Depending on where you live, socializing is currently discouraged, if not explicitly outlawed, in order to slow the transmission of COVID-19. But when that changes, people with social anxiety may wish to be as informed and prepared as possible.
If your fear of meeting new people is so overwhelming that it prevents you from doing so, or causes intense distress when you can’t avoid social situations, you may have what’s called social anxiety disorder. It’s worth talking to your doctor or a therapist if you think you might suffer from social anxiety disorder, but in the meantime, here’s more information about this condition.
What are the symptoms of social anxiety disorder?
As with other forms of anxiety, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder can vary from person to person. People with social anxiety disorder tend to experience their most severe symptoms when they are around other people, or are anticipating being around other people. These symptoms may include:
— Sweating and/or feeling hot
— Nausea or upset stomach
— Avoidance of eye contact and interaction
— Intense self-consciousness about one’s physical movements
— Intense fear of embarrassing oneself
— Imagining disastrous outcomes for the social situation
Some people have a more specific social anxiety disorder tied to performance, like giving a speech or presentation at work. For these people, these symptoms may arise only in those situations, but not other social environments, like parties.
What causes social anxiety disorder?
Sometimes social anxiety disorder appears to be genetic, but not always. Researchers also think brain structure might play a role: People with overactive amygdalas (the part of the brain that controls our response to fear) may be more prone to social anxiety disorder because they perceive threat in situations where there really isn’t any.
Social anxiety disorder may also be environmental, meaning it can be a learned response. If you already did experience an embarrassing social situation — or see it happen to someone else — and were teased or otherwise harmed by that experience, you may start worrying it’ll happen to you again. Children who are bullied may therefore be more likely to have social anxiety disorder when they’re older: Symptoms of social anxiety disorder typically begin to surface in one’s teenage years.
How do I treat social anxiety disorder?
If you’re concerned that your social anxiety is having a negative impact on your day-to-day life, you should talk to your doctor and/or consult a therapist. Medical professionals can help ensure that you receive the correct diagnosis, as well as a treatment plan that works for you, which may or may not include talk therapy and/or medication like beta blockers to take before a big social event or presentation, daily anti-anxiety meds, or antidepressants.
Some people with social anxiety disorder will find that exposure to scary-seeming social situations makes them less scary over time. More often than not, “embarrassing yourself” in public is less embarrassing and painful than imagined, so getting it over with can gradually reduce those fears.
Researchers have also found that accepting one’s social anxiety is essential to reducing its impact, which is to say that the fear of one’s own fear is often the worst part. If you can accept that your voice might shake a little, and your face might get a little red, but still go to the event anyway, you’re likely to realize that nobody notices, or that everyone’s so glad to see you they don’t care. Similarly, people who are able to reframe their social fear as excitement might reduce uncomfortable symptoms and improve performance.