Many of us feel nervous when we have to give a presentation or meet new people – these situations can be especially challenging if you’re naturally shy. However, being shy and having occasional performance anxiety is not the same as living with social anxiety disorder. Here, we’ll explore what social anxiety is, why it can be so disabling, and how you can learn to manage it.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
According to Anxiety Canada, social anxiety disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders in Canada. At its core, this illness revolves around the individual’s fear of being judged by others. Between 8 and 13 per cent of Canadians will experience social anxiety disorder in their lifetime. It is more likely to occur in women, especially during years of development such as the transition from teenager to young adult.
When Does Social Anxiety Occur?
The symptoms of social anxiety can occur before, during, and after social situations as well as when the individual is alone and ruminating on their fears. That’s what makes this illness so debilitating; it doesn’t stop once the social situation ends.
Some people living with social anxiety disorder experience extreme fear of performing in front of others and being judged in situations such as giving a public speech. Others may feel triggered by interpersonal situations when they must interact with another person such as engaging in small talk with co-workers. Some can feel judgement from strangers they pass on the street or in a hallway. The judgment they perceive might be around their appearance, the way they walk or the clothing they wear. This barrage of perceived judgement results in a constant monologue of negative thoughts stemming from what might seem like benign situations to those unaffected by social anxiety.
What Are the Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder?
An individual might experience some or all of the following symptoms of social anxiety disorder:
- Negative self-talk and poor self-esteem
- Preoccupation with how they will appear during social situations
- The tendency to avoid social settings or to escape from social settings
Very often physical symptoms such as dry mouth, sweating, shaking, dizziness, nausea, a racing heart, and blushing accompany these anxious thoughts.
Treatment of Social Anxiety Disorder
To treat social anxiety disorder, there are several avenues to explore. The treatment option most supported by scientific evidence is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) which focuses on challenging unhelpful thoughts and beliefs and teaching clients how to manage or re-direct their thoughts. With practice, there are skills that can be learned to control the symptoms of social anxiety.
Some individuals benefit from taking anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications as prescribed by a licensed physician. Some form of talk therapy or CBT is often recommended in tandem with drug therapy.
Living with Social Anxiety Disorder During Covid-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has come with restrictions on social gatherings and interactions, such as staying six feet apart, wearing a mask and, increasingly, opting to stay home and avoiding face to face interactions entirely. You might assume that these rules would be good for those living with social anxiety disorder and for some, they might be. However, being restricted from social interaction provides only temporary relief and might actually cause more anxiety and exacerbate symptoms when situations cannot be avoided.
The gradual exposure to social interactions is beneficial to those living with social anxiety disorder as it allows them to conquer their fears and build their confidence. Without these opportunities, anxiety can worsen.
Because of the benefits of social interaction to our mental wellbeing we all need to be intentional about including it in our lives – particularly during this pandemic. Those living with social anxiety disorder may need extra support engaging in virtual social gatherings via Zoom or other platforms.
To find a mental health practitioner to help you or a loved one manage social anxiety, visit Anxiety Canada’s Help Map.
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