What is social anxiety?
At the core of social anxiety is a fear of appearing foolish or shameful in front of others. This fear can range from mild to severe. Shyness can be thought of as a mild form of social anxiety. Social anxiety disorder lies at the other more severe end of the continuum and disrupts a person's life.
What causes social anxiety?
Social anxiety typically emerges in the mid-teens. It can come on gradually, or it can be triggered suddenly by a specific event.
Social anxiety can run in families, which suggests there may be a genetic component. Bullying in childhood may also have an effect. Having an inhibited or shy temperament may also increase a person's risk.
Common situations that trigger social anxiety include:
conversations with new people
eating in public
writing in front of others
speaking over the phone
using public toilets
Having others see oneself blushing, sweating, trembling, or stuttering when speaking
How is social anxiety treated?
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be an effective treatment for social anxiety. CBT teaches people the skills to manage their anxiety in social situations. These skills include attention training, thought challenging, and exposure therapy.
One way to lessen social anxiety is to lessen self-consciousness. CBT helps people to become lessen their self-consciousness by encouraging them to focus away from themselves and onto what they're doing. For example, a person would be encouraged to focus on the conversation they are having - e.g. what the other person is saying, what questions they want to ask, what opinions they want to share etc.
CBT helps people to challenge the thoughts that are making them anxious. Much of what drives social anxiety are underlying beliefs like ‘I must perform well’, ‘I mustn’t make mistakes’, ‘people will judge me - and that will be awful’. Understandably, this makes a person quite anxious when socializing. CBT encourages people to challenge thoughts that say they ‘have to’ perform well and not make mistakes. People are also taught to take other people’s opinions less seriously.
Exposure therapy teaches people to face their fears in small steps. It involves a person identifying a social situation that they want to become more comfortable in first. Then, a person breaks down the goal into easy, medium, and difficult tasks. They then work their way through these tasks starting with the easiest ones. For dating, as an example, a person could research dating websites and sign up for one (easy), message one person they like (medium), and ask for (or go on) a date (hard).
The video below explains how social anxiety operates and how it's treated using CBT: