hope for those with social anxiety
Social anxiety is a near universal experience in that 99% of people report experiencing it in some situations. In fact, she notes the people who never report experiencing this phenomenon are likely sociopaths. The fact that social anxiety is so common suggests that there are some benefits in having this sensitivity regarding how we come across to others.
Social anxiety conjures images of a person who is stuttering, avoiding eye contact, and saying little in group situations. Actually, much of social anxiety is an internal experience of feeling self-conscious and conspicuous, being worried about others’ judgment, and having a belief of being "too much" or "not enough" in some basic way relating to our character, appearance, or social skills. For example, a person might think they are "too weird " or “too boring". About a fifth of socially anxious people experience symptoms of anger and irritability which may manifest as sarcastic comments and critical judgment of others. The experience of social anxiety exists on a continuum from passing anxiety in certain situations (e.g., public speaking) to debilitating anxiety (e.g., forgoing a desired job interview due to fear despite being qualified). Ultimately, social anxiety involves a fear of rejection.
While we can all relate to the experience of social anxiety in certain situations, only about 13% of people experience debilitating social anxiety at any given time. However, a full 40% of people identify themselves as shy which Hendriksen (2018) refers to as “everyday social anxiety”. Being shy is not necessarily associated with the distress or impairment that would bump it up into the level of an anxiety disorder. This suggests, however, that many of us can benefit from learning how to work through these feelings. While anxiety is partly genetically based, environmental factors such as parental modeling and life experiences can have an effect in molding our sense of ourselves. Hendrickson (2018) suggests that social anxiety involves seeing ourselves in a distorted way and then believing that this distortion is true.
People suffering from social anxiety can be perceived negatively. In reality, socially anxious people have many strengths. For example, Hendriksen (2018) argues that socially anxious individuals tend to be more thoughtful about what they say, are conscientious, have a strong work ethic, are gifted at remembering faces, are highly empathic, are altruistic, have high standards, and are considerate of others. As mentioned previously, there is reason to believe that such sensitivities are evolutionarily adaptive. It seems useful for us to be tuned into the effect we have on others as social ties are essential for us to thrive as a species as well as individuals. When social anxiety is severe, however, it can lead to social isolation. There is abundant evidence that isolation is detrimental to our emotional and physical health. Social isolation negatively affects sleep, mood, optimism, self-esteem, and one’s sense of safety. It is also associated with increased chances of heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, and risk of death.
It seems socially anxious people are somewhat different neurologically. We all have a “smoke alarm” of sorts in our brain, called the amygdala, which alerts us to possible danger. Socially anxious people are less able to use a more advanced part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, to calm the amygdala after a “false alarm”. The upshot is that socially anxious people have an overly sensitive ”smoke alarm” that can be triggered even if there is little ”smoke” and no “fire”. The good news is that if one can learn to calm oneself by changing one’s perceptions, focus, and some behaviors, relief can be had.
Hendriksen (2018) suggests attacking the issue from a few different angles. She notes that a major driver of social anxiety is “the inner critic”. She likens this voice in socially anxious people to a helicopter parent that frightens the child with all that can go wrong, creating a feeling of panic, while also expecting a perfect performance. The inner critic exaggerates possible negative outcomes. To address this, she suggests ”de-catastrophizing” versus “catastrophizing” by asking oneself these questions about the situation:
What is the worst thing that can happen? How bad would that really be? What are the odds that it will happen? How could you cope?
These responses are more in line with how a calm parent might guide a child by both being present and reflective while teaching the child to think through the problem.
As stated above, she identifies perfectionism as another major contributor to social anxiety. Perfectionism is less about getting it just right and more about never feeling “good enough”. She suggests shooting for a “good enough” performance. This, again, is like a loving parent that does not need straight “A” grades from their child to view them positively.
She also suggests altering the inner critic over time by using self-compassion. While the inner critic may be trying to help by being protective (just like the helicopter parent), compassion is much more effective than scare tactics. Hendricksen cites the work of Kristin Neff (Neff, 2011; Neff, 2016) regarding self-compassion. Neff (2011, as cited in Hendricksen, 2018) states that self-compassion involves practicing a combination of mindfulness and kindness toward oneself, as well as focusing on our shared common humanity. Mindfulness involves the cultivation of an accepting awareness of the present moment. Kindness means treating yourself with the same empathy you would give a friend. Neff (2016, as cited in Hendriksen, 2018) argues that kindness toward oneself is useful and not self-indulgent. A kind parent provides empathy and encouragement but does not allow the child to avoid developmentally appropriate challenges (e.g., anxiety about going to school). Remembering the universality of experiencing some degree of social anxiety also connects us to others and can decrease anxiety. For example, most people felt kindness toward the actor, Jennifer Lawrence, when she tripped in front of millions of viewers while going up the stage stairs to receive her Oscar. Remembering the kindness we naturally feel toward others who struggle can allow us to give ourselves more grace in anxious moments.
Hendriksen (2018), also identifies the need to face our anxiety in the real world. She notes the well-known fact that avoidance feeds anxiety and makes it stronger. She adds that managing social discomfort constructively and repeatedly over time leads to both lessened anxiety and increased confidence. Her generous disclosure about the details of her journey in overcoming her own social anxiety provides inspiration. Also, in one fascinating vignette, Hendriksen (2018) relates the story of a man severely debilitated by his social anxiety. She goes on to describe how this mild mannered, self-effacing gentleman, Mahatma Gandhi, not only overcame his social anxiety but changed the world!
Lastly, for individuals who suffer from social anxiety, having a companion on the journey to recovery can be invaluable. A therapist can provide support and help devise a detailed plan to address the roots of anxiety. In addition to working with the inner critic and supporting the development of self-compassion, a therapist can help clients use structure to lessen their anxiety. For example, having a task or role helps people feel less anxious. She also notes the importance of gradually dropping “safety behaviors” (e.g., leaning too much on friends in social situations, using alcohol to cope). Some other interventions involve changing one’s focus from oneself to those around us, reviewing one’s other strengths, and developing more interpersonal connections. She notes that it is useful on this journey to “go slow to go fast”. By addressing social anxiety gradually and purposefully rather than just grinning and bearing it, people really can overcome this uncomfortable condition over time.
Hendricksen, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. (1st ed.). St. Martin’s Press. By Susan Bennett, Ph.D.