Understanding the Differences Between General and Social Anxiety

The Damaging Consequences of Social Anxiety & What To Do About It

MS Broudy Ph.D
February 25, 2020
social anxiety

Stop for a minute and think about the importance of social interactions in your life. Is there any meaningful aspect of your existence that does not involve contact with other human beings? 

Now, imagine what would life be like if you feared to be around people in certain situations. Think about how it might impact your work and relationships, not to mention your overall mental health. Social anxiety is often misunderstood and underestimated. It affects over seven million adults in the United States at any given time. Let’s learn more about social anxiety and how you can combat its damaging effects. 

What is Social Anxiety?

Social Anxiety is a bit of a misnomer. It is not just anxiety from social situations; it is characterized by a fear of being around people in any activity where they feel they might be judged. Yes, that can take place while at a party or on a date, but it could also happen when at a work meeting or performing in front of other people. The individual with social anxiety fears they will embarrass themselves, so they want to avoid any circumstance that puts them in that position. If they do find themselves in a social situation, they may exhibit physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, nausea, and blushing. As a result, they tend to isolate and are frequently seen as aloof and unfriendly.

Shyness vs. Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety and shyness are often used interchangeably. However, they are not the same. While shyness does share some of the same symptoms as social anxiety, they are separated by the level of fear and impairment they incite. Shy people feel nervous about social situations, while socially anxious people often feel incapacitated. Moreover, shyness has been described as a stable personality trait whereas social anxiety is a temporary condition that can be decreased with the proper intervention. Furthermore, shyness is not considered a negative characteristic and does not carry the same harmful connotation as social anxiety.

Consequences of Social Anxiety

The consequences of social anxiety are more extensive than you might think:

Loneliness and Isolation

Anxious people avoid social situations to lower their anxiety. If they stay at home, they don’t feel the panic of possibly being judged or embarrassed. As a result, they don’t engage in socializing. Of course, it is impossible to make new friends or maintain current relationships without being social. When socially anxious people are forced to be at an event, they will stay alone in the corner and appear indifferent. Who wants to hang out with someone who seems disinterested? The result is a life of isolation and loneliness, however, socially anxious people do not want to be isolated. They want to be social and have friends, but their anxiety wins out. It is like being caught in a prison of your own making.

Lack of Social Support

Social support is essential to help one cope with difficult situations. Unfortunately, a socially anxious person has never made the friends necessary to obtain it. Even without friends, you might feel like you could turn to your family for assistance. But, even family may not support someone they see as never having made the effort to establish a relationship. Social support demands a certain level of reciprocity: I’ll be there for you if you are there for me. Who is going to go out of their way to help a withdrawn family member who they feel like has never been there for them?

Romantic Relationships

Social anxiety can also make it problematic to form and maintain romantic relationships. First of all, you are going to have difficulty meeting people if you avoid social situations. Second, most prospective partners would not consider a life without socializing as their idea of a good time. Finally, socially anxious people have difficulty opening up because they are afraid of being judged. Therefore, any prospective romantic partner is signing on to a life devoid of social activities with someone who fears intimacy. Doesn’t sound like an ideal match, does it?

Work

You might not think about work as being a social environment, but it is chock-full of human interaction and opportunities for harsh judgments. Depending on the job, you may have meetings where you are expected to speak up and contribute ideas. Think about how many jobs require you to address customers multiple times each day. Do you stay at your desk for lunch or do you go out with the group? What about happy hour? With all those stressful situations, socially anxious people often want to avoid work and call-out sick. Moreover, socially anxious people are at a disadvantage when compared to their more vocal peers. You may have a lot of valuable things to say but it does not matter if you are afraid to say them.

School

School can be terrifying for a socially anxious person. There are plenty of chances for potential embarrassment, such as : being introduced to new people and new classes, class presentations force you to talk in front of a group, and lunchtime Taking all that into account, you may not be surprised that socially anxious teenagers are more likely to drop out of school compared to their peers.

Depression

Combining anxiety, avoidance, isolation, lack of social support and poor work/school performance is not a prescription for happiness. It is no wonder that social anxiety and depression are often associated with one another. It is estimated that 70% of people who are diagnosed with both disorders will experience social anxiety first, which supports the position that the damaging effects of social anxiety cause depressive feelings.

What Can I Do About Social Anxiety?

The following are healthy methods to cope with social anxiety:

Gradual Exposure

If you are socially anxious, this is the hard part. Exposing yourself to anxiety-provoking events is necessary to overcome social anxiety. That means that you are going to have to force yourself to confront a situation where other people may judge you. What you need to realize is that anxiety is all about the lead up to an activity. Once you actually participate, you will find that your anxiety will decrease. The more you confront your anxiety the less stressed-out you will feel. After a bit, you may even have a good time. It is essential, however, that you don’t start by jumping into the deep end. Begin with an activity that is less stressful and intimidating. For example, go to a small gathering with a friend. Once you can manage that without a panic attack, move up to something bigger.

Join an Activity

Attending an organized activity is a good way to confront your anxiety. It is kind of like starting with a clean slate. Everyone is there to meet new people and do something they think they will enjoy. No one there knows you as the unfriendly, awkward person that doesn’t participate. You can reinvent yourself as a more social version of yourself. Besides, if it doesn’t go well, you never have to see those people again.

Make a Commitment

Whatever social event you choose to attend, put it on your calendar. You may still wriggle out of going but you are more likely to follow through if you write it down. Also, tell another person that you are going. It is much harder to avoid a social situation if someone else can hold you accountable.

Psychotherapy

Many people with social anxiety need professional help to address their issues.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are well-suited for the treatment of social anxiety. Both types of therapy will help you examine your anxious thoughts and engage in more adaptive behavior.

Medication

Psychotropic medication is frequently regarded as a front-line treatment for social anxiety. Although SSRIs, can be effective, the use of medication in the treatment of social anxiety can be problematic. When you pop a pill, you are not confronting your anxiety. In fact, taking medication can be seen as a form of avoidance. That being said, medication can sometimes help you take the strides necessary to confront anxiety.

You Can Rid Yourself of Social Anxiety

People often minimize the impact of social anxiety, passing it off as a little shyness. Unfortunately, the consequences of social anxiety can be quite severe and lead to isolation, poor job or school performance, and depression. Although it requires some effort, social anxiety does not have to rule your life. By taking a few courageous steps — and psychotherapy if needed — you can break the bonds of social anxiety and realize your true potential.

MS Broudy Ph.D

MS Broudy is a psychologist, writer, and consultant. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and a master’s degree in Social Psychology. He has spent over 20 years providing therapy and assessment services for a diverse set of clients. MS specializes in writing about mental health, parenting, and wellness. He has his own blog, mentalspokes.com, where he writes about psychological issues.

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