Friendship can be one of life’s great joys – sitting down with a friend over a cup of tea to reminisce and have a laugh, or sharing in an activity you enjoy together does wonders for our overall wellbeing.
But friendship and sociability doesn’t come easily to everyone, and for some, social relationships are virtually impossible due to social anxiety disorder, or social phobia. It manifests in a feeling of intense fear in social situations, and you might worry about an event before, during and after it has happened, or you may try to avoid the event altogether.
This is different from feeling shy or awkward at times, or nervous in social settings – this happens to all of us at some point and is completely normal, especially when encountering new situations or people. Social phobia goes beyond this and can be completely overwhelming and very disruptive, making it very difficult to engage in everyday activities such as speaking on the phone, meeting new people, starting conversations, eating and drinking in front of others or public speaking.
Social phobia can provoke all sorts of negative and anxious thoughts, including the fear that people might judge you negatively, that you may inadvertently offend someone, or you may do or say something that makes you feel embarrassed or conspicuous.
You might also feel physical symptoms, such as sweating, dizziness or feeling faint, a pounding heart, nausea, shortness of breath, or trembling or shaking. These symptoms can ironically increase your anxiety, because you worry that people might notice, or you fear that you might faint in front of others. In acute cases, these symptoms could trigger a panic attack.
The worry and fear of experiencing these symptoms can lead you to avoid social situations that might trigger them, but this can actually cause the phobia to worsen as it builds in significance and intensity in your mind.
This in turn can make it difficult to maintain relationships, affecting your self-esteem and confidence, causing you to become isolated, lonely, anxious, depressed, and it can even lead to agoraphobia, which is separate and distinct from social phobia, but just as complex.
Agoraphobia is commonly thought of as a fear of open spaces, but there is much more to it than that. It is feeling anxious about being in places or situations that could be difficult or embarrassing to get out of, or where you might not be able to get help. This can lead to a fear of being outside alone, open spaces, being in a crowd of people or being in enclosed spaces such as a lift, shop or moving vehicle, which can all amount to finding it very difficult to leave the perceived safety of home.
It can sometimes develop after experiencing a panic attack – the fear of it happening again means you start to avoid certain circumstances or locations, which can build into being unable to leave where you live. This fear could actually bring on a panic attack if you were to find yourself in a particular situation, so it becomes a vicious cycle.
There are some self-care techniques that you can try to help with social anxiety disorder:
Talk to someone – whether it’s a family member, friend or professional counsellor, it can help to talk about your worries and simply have someone listen to and acknowledge your feelings
Coping methods – it’s possible to learn to manage your fear and anxiety to help you cope in triggering situations. This might include relaxation techniques (like meditation), breathing exercises, focusing on your senses or using a physical distraction like stamping your feet
Support groups – face to face or online peer support groups can be a really useful tool, as others may have experience and advice which could be valuable. Simply knowing others are going through it too can also be a big help
Read all about it – self-help books or online courses can be beneficial if you don’t want to attend a support group. Usually based around cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, these resources can help you develop your own support programme.
Your GP may also be able to help with advice and support on medication and therapy-based treatments.
If you, or someone you know, suffer from social anxiety, it’s important to be kind and take it slow. Try not to be pressured by the whirlwind of social media and don’t rush trying to fix the problem – little steps will get you there just as well as big ones.