Social anxiety is defined as excessive fear of social situations. If you’ve ever experienced crippling anxiety at a party or a work presentation, you know how difficult it feels.
I’m a therapist for millennials with anxiety and ADHD. Many of my clients fear social situations, especially in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic and all the social distancing. If you still feel unable to connect with people in the way you could pre-COVID, you’re not alone.
As a society, we tend to think about social anxiety being about shyness or introversion. But in reality, social anxiety is about fear of judgment from others.
Social anxiety and feeling judged can severely impact your life. It can make you feel lonely, isolated, and depressed. It can also limit your professional life and your relationships.
Avoiding social settings might feel like the path of least resistance, but this often makes things worse. Exposing yourself bit by bit to social settings – and finding tools for calming down your nervous system when you’re overwhelmed – can help you overcome your social anxiety.
Social anxiety and shyness or introversion aren’t the same, although they can look similar. And if you’re like many of my clients, you may not even realize the impact of anxiety in your life.
Shyness is a feeling of nervousness or awkwardness in certain settings, including social settings. Shyness is usually a factor of feeling unfamiliar with the people or places around you, and often wears off as you begin feeling more comfortable with the people you’re around.
Social anxiety, on the other hand, is a persistent sense that you’re being judged and scrutinized in social settings. It’s an anxiety disorder and doesn’t go away on its own over time. It’s typically caused by a worry of being negatively evaluated, dismissed, mocked, or laughed at.
Shyness may look like someone blending into the background and being a fly on the wall instead of engaging in a lot of conversation or being the center of attention. Social anxiety may be tougher to spot. Someone with social anxiety is not always but sometimes able to hide their anxiety. Or they may look outwardly fidgety, nervous, or distracted.
Social anxiety feels like being on display in a glass case. It can feel downright claustrophobic: there’s nowhere to go, and everyone in the room seems to be staring at you. Worse still, they seem to be judging your every move and facial expression and comment.
Social anxiety boils down to feeling judged by people. Or, put another way, it can feel like an overwhelming fear of being scrutinized or seen too closely.
Anxiety manifests as physical symptoms like:
It also shows up mentally and emotionally as:
When all these symptoms pop up in a social setting, it can make it extremely difficult to relax and be present with the people and environment around you. This in turn makes socializing even harder – you may feel awkward or realize you’re stumbling over your words, which results in even more anxiety.
Social anxiety sometimes causes you to behave strangely or abnormally around other people, which can make you even more reluctant to spend time in social settings later. You can get so worried about being judged and scorned that eventually you might try to avoid social situations at all costs.
This can become a vicious cycle. The more you avoid social settings, the worse your social anxiety becomes. Interestingly, certain factors like ADHD and other anxiety disorders can increase the likelihood of struggling with social anxiety and feeling judged.
Avoiding social situations has obvious drawbacks. You’re more likely to become isolated, lonely, and even depressed when you don’t spend enough time around people. And living in fear of the times when you do have to interact with others is a shitty way to live.
If you resonate with this, know that it’s not your fault for avoiding social situations. It’s a way to cope that feels helpful in the moment because it reduces your overall anxiety. Of course you’re going to keep doing whatever you can to stop feeling so anxious.
Usually, however, avoiding things that make you anxious only makes you more afraid of them.
When you try to avoid discomfort and negative emotions, you become less confident in your ability to handle those things. They hold more power over you.
So how do you stop the cycle of social anxiety and judgment?
The key is to stop avoiding social situations – and to learn skills for grounding your nervous system in times of distress.
I’m not saying to go out to 20 parties in one day and push through the anxiety and overstimulation. That would completely overwhelm your system. Working up to getting comfortable socializing again is a slow process, and shouldn’t be rushed.
To start, know that being uncomfortable in a social setting is okay and doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.
Discomfort is okay and you don’t need to avoid it. In fact, avoiding discomfort often makes you more uncomfortable. Practice small ways of facing your social fears. This is known as exposure therapy and it’s helpful for overcoming phobias and fears.
One way to try this is to practice smiling at or saying hello to a couple of strangers every day in a setting where you might usually avoid eye contact or conversation. Think: the grocery store or at a park. It should be somewhere with low consequences that will feel a little uncomfortable, but not overwhelmingly so.
Little by little, interactions like this can boost your confidence and help you engage with people in “scarier” settings, like a large party or a work conference.
When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated by anxiety, try some quick grounding techniques to help your nervous system recover. Dialing down your amped-up nervous system even 1% can greatly reduce your anxiety in the moment and help you relax. Here are some ideas:
Most of these can be done unobtrusively in a variety of social settings while talking to people. You can also excuse yourself and spend a few minutes in the bathroom or outside calming your nervous system before going back in and rejoining the conversation.
If you want support managing your fears of social anxiety and feeling judged, I’m here to help.
Together, we’ll come up with coping strategies catered to you to manage your social anxiety. You’ll learn techniques to relax, be more present, and ground yourself and your nervous system when you’re experiencing social anxiety. You’ll also learn ways to get more comfortable being uncomfortable.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.