Do you find yourself dreading going to social outings? Is it difficult to have a conversation or meet unfamiliar people? Do you find yourself thinking that you might say or do something embarrassing? Are you constantly reliving your interactions with others? Are you embarrassed to eat in front of others? If any of these sounds familiar to you, you might be experiencing social anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is when a person experiences excessive worries, fears, or body sensations (for example, rapid heart beat, shallow breathing, tension throughout the body, excessive sweating) in social situations. In addition, the person may fear being judged by others or doing things that may be embarrassing. As a result, the person may avoid social interactions and cause significant distress or problems in their everyday life.
The DSM-V-TR describes social anxiety as marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.
The individual fears that he or she will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated.
As a result of these fears, the person may avoid social interactions.
Social situations may always provoke fear or anxiety.
The fear is out of proportions to the actual threat posed by the social situation.
The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent.
The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress.
Tips and Strategies to Manage Social Anxiety
The first step is to consider the following:
- What is the earliest memory you have of engaging in social interactions that caused anxious thoughts or feelings?
- What is the worst part of engaging in social interactions?
Next, as you think of the worst part of engaging in social interactions, notice how it feels in your body. What kind of thoughts come up for you when you think about engaging in social situations? What negative beliefs do you have about yourself? Asking yourself these questions may help you in understanding your symptoms and why those symptoms come up for you in social situations. This knowledge will guide you in knowing when to practice the tools and strategies that will be suggested. Noticing when these negative thoughts, feelings, or sensations come up for you can help you know when to practice the coping skills that will be shared.
The first suggested coping skill is the belly breathing exercise. Taking a break to do belly breathing exercises before engaging in a social interaction may help lessen the social anxiety symptoms. On the other hand, you can excuse yourself during the social interaction, if you notice the negative thoughts, sensations, or feelings coming up, to do belly breathing in a safe place. There are many apps that you can download that will guide you with engaging in breathing exercises. However, note that belly breathing exercise can be done without an app (as I share below).
How to do belly breathing exercise:
- Make sure both your feet are on the floor so you can ground yourself.
- You do not have to close your eyes if it is uncomfortable.
- Now imagine that you had a balloon in your belly and as you inhale, that balloon is being filled up with air and as you exhale, that balloon is being deflated.
- As you engage in these belly breathing exercises, you should notice your belly moving up or down as you inhale and exhale. If you notice your chest is moving up and down then you are not doing belly breathing.
- Try to be mindful that you are relaxing your shoulders while doing the belly breathing exercises.
The second suggested coping skill is using sensory objects to help you stay grounded. Sensory objects have been shown to be helpful with regulating the body and distracting the mind. You can purchase sensory toys that are small that you can keep in your pocket or keychain.
Another trick is having a hot or cold drink in your hand and taking a sip before talking, to help you slow down, and ground yourself before interacting.
Examples of Sensory Objects (There are many different types of sensory toys. Use trial and error to see which one works best for you):
- Pop it
- Fidget spinner
- Stress ball
- Sour candy
- Keys can serve as sensory object
The last strategy suggested is preparing yourself before the event by using the belly breathing exercise and having a mantra as you do the exercise. The mantra can be as simple as silently saying “I am in control” as you inhale or exhale. Remember to go slow, and take breaks in between, to help you manage.
Start practicing these skills by yourself first and then move up to one or two people before going to social outings. As you become comfortable with practicing the suggested skills/strategies discussed, you can slowly move up to larger social outings. It may take a few tries and feel uncomfortable at the beginning. However, as you practice the skills, you may notice less discomfort in social settings. Be gentle and patient with yourself if you find it difficult to do.
Please note, that these strategies and tips are suggestions on how to manage it and do not substitute professional help.
When and how to seek professional help
If you find yourself avoiding social interactions, experiencing any of the symptoms discussed above and these symptoms are causing problems in your ability to work, interpersonal relationships, or education then seeking professional help would be recommended.
You can seek professional help by calling your insurance carrier (if you have insurance) and asking for a list of mental health providers in your area. Also, searching therapists in different search platforms such as Frame or Psychology Today can help you narrow a list of therapists in your area that provide the services to treat social anxiety.
Be prepared to share your symptoms and a thorough history of the problem that you are experiencing so that your therapist can better understand how they can help you. Most importantly, being comfortable with your therapist and feeling safe will make your healing journey easier to navigate.
Finding the right therapist is like finding the right pair of shoes. It is okay if you do not match with a therapist on the first try; just like you may have to try on a few pairs of shoes before finding the right fit, you may have to go through a few therapists.
About the author: Dr. Yvonne Burgos obtained her PsyD in forensic Psychology from Alliant International University. She is a clinical psychologist who has fourteen years of experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in clinical settings. Dr. Burgos primary focus is working with complex trauma. Learn more about her specialities, read more of her content, or get in touch by viewing her Frame profile here.