Social anxiety is when a person has anxiety (defined as “anticipation of future events” by the DSM) about being in a social setting. While social anxiety is found in a wide range of people, it is typically most acute in the teenage and early adult years. Below are three things you should know about social anxiety, whether you or someone close to you suffers from it:
- Irrational Fears. Almost always, a person with social anxiety has irrational fears about how others are going to view them. For example, a teenage boy might believe that every time he is in public, people are going to look at him and think his arms are too skinny. Or a young adult might believe that everyone is watching her at work, making silent judgments about her productivity. Of course, these are irrational fears because there is no reason why everyone in a social setting would so unanimously focus on one person, especially for something so insignificant as their arms or their work. At the core of these irrational beliefs is usually a fear of being judged negatively. These fears lead to the behavior of avoidance. If you think everyone is going to critically evaluate your arms in public, and come to the conclusion that they are too skinny, then it makes sense why you would want to stay at home.
- The Type Of Society Matters. People who are anxious about being in public are typically more anxious with certain groups. For example, a teenage girl has a harder time being in a group of her peers than with a group of younger girls. This is because the group of younger girls is not going to judge her as harshly as her own peers would. Likewise, a group of adults would not be as stressful as a group of peers, although they would be more stressful than the group of younger girls. Or, a middle-aged man has a hard time being in loud, frantic society. He cannot stand concerts, where everything is loud and everyone is pressing together, but he doesn’t mind going to the library as much.
- Wide-Ranging Help. Social anxiety can be treated in a variety of ways. A psychodynamic approach might aim at three steps. First, help the person become comfortable in the room with their therapist (itself a social setting). Secondly, help the person grow comfortable with talking about their irrational fears—the full extent of them, so that the therapist can understand, empathize, and intervene. Finally, understand the source of these irrational fears, almost undoubtedly the product of previous situations, family dynamics, and personality.
A cognitive-behavioral approach would more directly aim at the irrational fears and try to show the client why they are, in fact, irrational. This approach would ask the client to provide evidence for his or her irrational thoughts. The therapy would also hope to develop techniques to provide perspective, as well as construct plans for what to do when similar thoughts surface again.
Behavioral approaches would have a greater emphasis on early exposure, meaning they would prefer the client to expose him or herself to these anxiety-provoking situations in the attempt to de-sensitize the person to them.
One final, important point is that most of us experience social anxiety to some degree in our daily lives. Help should be sought if this anxiety interferes with your ability to function—to work, love, and play.