What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety refers to anxiety you experience in response to some type of social situation, whether speaking to someone one-on-one, walking into a room full of people, or just being near other people at work or socially.
Often, social anxiety is connected with feeling that other people are judging you in some way, whether for the way you look, or for what you might say or do.
It includes a whole continuum from simple shyness, to mild anxiety around people, right up to the extreme of paralysing anxiety that prevents you from being around people at all. (When social anxiety reaches this extreme level, it may be called “social anxiety disorder” or “social phobia”.)
It's quite common to feel some anxiety when meeting new people, or in situations where you need to speak to a group of people or in some other way, want to be well thought of.
If you get anxious in these situations, there are simple strategies that can help you – if you remember to do them!
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social Anxiety Disorder is a clinical term used to describe social anxiety that interferes with your life, whether your social life or your work life.
Social Anxiety Disorder (or Social Phobia) may be diagnosed when the following symptoms are found on a regular basis:
- A marked and persistent fear of being scrutinised by others in one or more social or performance situations. The fear involves acting in a way that will be embarrassing or humiliating (including showing symptoms of anxiety).
- Exposure to the feared situation causes anxiety and may lead to a panic attack.
- The fear is recognised to be irrational and excessive.
- The fear leads to marked distress during exposure to the social situation, or may lead to avoidance of that situation.
Ref: World Health Organization (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD)
What causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
There seems to be some genetic and biological predisposition to anxiety.... and it is also learned from the people around you, especially your parents. However, a predisposition doesn't condemn you to suffer anxiety for the rest of your life!
Social anxiety is particularly persistent because it feeds on itself – you start by being mildly anxious at the thought of speaking to a member of the opposite sex, for example. This anxiety might make you sweat a bit, or make you blush, or simply stop you thinking of something appropriate to say. You get worried about these things, and get more anxious, and it becomes worse.... and then the other person really might begin to see you as awkward, and not fun to be with. Once this happens, you have a bad experience that makes it harder the next time, and if you don't do something about it, it becomes harder and harder to face social situations.
If this has been your experience as a child, you probably have a lifetime of bad experiences to overcome! If you've been teased or bullied, chances are you've developed some degree of social anxiety – or else you've become extra tough (and probably won't be reading this).
Find out how to overcome social anxiety here.