Actual, diagnosable, pathological social anxiety can be crippling. It doesn’t mean “oh, I’m scared to go out around people because I might mess up.” Pathological social anxiety, according to the Social Anxiety Association, affects about 7% of people at any given time, and 13% of people over the course of their lives. The group defines the disorder as “the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people.” Moreover, “it is a pervasive disorder and causes anxiety and fear in most all areas of a person’s life.”
So you’re not just scared to meet some moms out for coffee. You’re freaked out when you have to drive through Starbucks, because you have to talk to the barista.
Usually, people with social anxiety feel a “constant, intense fear.” There are plenty of physical symptoms, like blushing, a racing heart, dry mouth, and trembling. These things get triggered by many things, most of which boil down to “feeling insecure and out of place in social situations.” It’s important to realize that this stuff is chronic, pathological, and a problem with your brain chemistry. You need to rewire it. The only way to do that is through cognitive behavioral therapy, according to the association. Medication worked fine for me, but I may be in the minority.
But What About The Rest of Us?
What about those of us who don’t fall into that category yet still feel some level of social anxiety? We don’t freak out all the time. We’re not afraid of the barista; we’re afraid we’ll screw up meeting new people, and we’re afraid of messing up in front of important people, and we’re afraid people won’t like us — but we don’t quite meet the standards for diagnosable social anxiety. I’m treated. My psychiatrist will tell you I’m treated. But I still freak out when it comes to new playgroups or hanging out with moms I don’t know well or seeing people I don’t deem good friends — people I don’t know well, people who might not tolerate my social fuck-ups.
And even this low-grade social anxiety can affect us in profound ways. I find myself reluctant, for example, to go to certain events or to hang out at them for very long. I might not know the other parents there, and I’m shy to get to know them — I’m terrified they won’t like me. This makes me look standoffish, so other parents disregard me, and it becomes a vicious cycle. I become convinced that people who probably do like me think I’m deeply weird and probably talk about me behind my back, so I avoid them (I actually switched homeschool associations because of this, a fairly drastic move). I think I might avoid social gatherings just because people I know don’t like me will be there, rather than showing up and ignoring them.
So What Can We Do About Social Anxiety?
HelpGuide has several really good solutions to help combat social anxiety. I use some of them, and they really do help. First, we have to recognize our irrational thoughts. Most of us, as the Social Anxiety Association points out, know our thoughts are irrational. But we have to actually take the time, in the middle of them, to pause. We have to realize we’re having irrational thoughts and label them.I like to actually say the words in my head: “The idea that my friend thinks I’m weird is an irrational thing to think.” We may need to say this more than once. It helps.
Next, we can, as HelpGuide suggests, “stop and analyze these thoughts.” Ask yourself questions. You can acknowledge your feelings — “I’m nervous that my friends think I’m weird” — without validating them. Then, after you acknowledge the way you feel about that irrational thought, you can try to analyze it. Does being nervous my friends think I’m weird actually mean my friends think I’m weird, or am I projecting? What actual evidence can I produce that my friends think I’m weird?
When I think about that evidence, I need to step outside myself and give myself the same grace I give other people. If someone came to me and told me the same things I’m telling myself, what would I say to them? Would I agree that yes, your friends think you’re weird? Or would I say no, you’re making this up, honey — you need to take some deep breaths? This is one of the most difficult parts, because you have to think as if you’re someone else. You have to look at your life as if it was someone else’s, and that can be really, really hard when you’re caught in the middle of it.
But it’s probably the most important step to overcoming your social anxiety. You have to take a step back. You have to say, is this a rational thing that I would let my friend persist in believing? If the answer is a big fat no, give yourself the same grace you’d give your friend. Realize you’re being anxious. And remember that you can experience the feeling without giving in to the truth of it. You can let yourself be anxious without believing in that same anxiety. Practice saying things like, “I am anxious, but there is no reason to feel this way.”
It helps to develop rituals, then, once you realize that there’s no reason for your anxiety, to calm yourself down. You can take a walk. I like to read a book or write, both of which take me out of my own head. You could play with your kids or your dog. I also like to sing along loudly to music on the radio. Squeeze a stress ball. Practice mental imagery. My husband has a calming app he uses on his phone.
If you don’t have diagnosable social anxiety, there’s plenty you can do on your own to help yourself get over those panicky moments that crop up to ruin your fun times. If you do have a social anxiety disorder, you need the help of a qualified therapist or psychiatrist — and you can still use these techniques to help you while you get better. But either way, social anxiety is treatable. It’s conquerable and curable. You can beat this. You can do this. You can get better.
You don’t have to live in fear. I promise.