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  • Writer's pictureShaun McMahon

Why Social Anxiety Happens: A Beginners Guide

As mental health awareness continues to improve in our society, more and more people are acknowledging that they have some form of social anxiety, and seeking therapy in search of relief. Today we’re going to be looking at social anxiety, and the accompanying diagnosis, Social Anxiety Disorder, or SAD.

It’s worth noting right away that anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, much like being thirsty or tired. We are hardwired to be social creatures, and being that relationships are so crucial to our survival and wellbeing, it's natural to feel a sense of anxiety about fitting in, adhering to social norms, and being accepted by others. However, some people experience social anxiety to a degree that it begins to impact their ability to live a regular life, making it hard to perform everyday tasks, such as speaking to someone on the phone, giving a presentation in class, or meeting a new person for the first time.

What Social Anxiety Feels Like

People with social anxiety fear a particular set of feelings which are related to social interactions, namely embarrassment and/or humiliation. They are afraid of being judged, criticized, or scrutinized by others. This can involve a desire or need to be perfect, otherwise people will be able to notice their flaws and shortcomings, using those as a reason to criticize them.

Common in people with social anxiety are physical symptoms such as blushing, profuse sweating, or shaky hands. These can compound the anxieties they have about being in social situations, because it makes them worry about making a fool of themselves or being judged by others for being anxious.

Some people experience these fears in specific ways, such as performance anxiety, which arises when people need to give a speech or presentation to others, or perhaps a musical performance. Others might be afraid of taking a test. SAD can become so severe that people struggle to interact with all people, including their own family members.

A consistent theme is the amount of worry that goes along with social anxiety. People who experience social anxiety typically worry about the event before it happens, while it’s happening, and then will ruminate over it for hours, days or weeks as they pick apart what happened and what went wrong.

One thing to keep in mind is that social anxiety is a fear of a feeling. It’s not so much the bad thing that might happen which is the problem, but instead the fear of it. This is why social anxiety can be a confusing, and crippling condition.

Why Social Anxiety Happens

Social anxiety is linked to genetic causes and often arises in early life, sometimes in people as young as 12-13. This can be problematic for people of this age, because they may not have the awareness, support or understanding to know what is happening to them and why. It can lead to people struggling in school, experiencing disruptions in their family life, and finding it hard to make friends.

It is for this reason that many people with social anxiety often experience other conditions, such as depression, low self esteem and poor social skills. These might be masking the underlying anxiety, but are linked to the anxiety, rather than the cause of it. Some people with social anxiety also rely on substances to help them feel more comfortable in social situations, which can lead to dependency on these substances.

Will Social Anxiety Ever Go Away

As mentioned earlier, anxiety is a normal part of life. It makes sense for us to be conscious of how others are receiving us, as we humans are social creatures who are unable to stop ourselves from getting into pairs and groups. Consider that people who have no concern or mindfulness about how others are perceiving and experiencing them are no better off than people who are constantly worried about these things.

This doesn’t mean that social anxiety cannot be treated. In fact, anxiety is one of the most treatable mental health conditions people come to therapy with. It can be a challenging process nonetheless. Typical treatment for social anxiety involves exposing yourself to situations that frighten you. It might seem counterintuitive, since it’s likely that no part of you wants to expose yourself to embarrassment or humiliation. However, it is through exposing yourself to the very experiences that scare you that you can overcome your social anxiety.

Treatment for social anxiety can also involve the development of other areas, such as social skills, improving your self esteem, and mentalization, the capacity to hold the mind of another person in your mind. It is through this skill that we are able to more accurately perceive and interpret what other people might be thinking and how they are perceiving us, as people with social anxiety often believe others think the worst of them.

Therapy For Social Anxiety

If you have social anxiety and wish to overcome it, speak to your therapist about getting help with it. It’s normal for things to feel worse for a while as you step out of your comfort zone and try new things, but over time you will begin to feel more confident and courageous.

Shaun McMahon is a Melbourne based psychotherapist who helps people overcome their social anxiety. He conducts sessions both in person and online, and is currently accepting new clients. If you are looking to finally overcome your social anxiety and wish to get help, you can arrange a FREE 15 minute consultation with Shaun by clicking here.

Source: Seif, M. N., Winston, S. (2014) What Every Therapist Needs To Know About Anxiety Disorders: Key Concepts, Insights and Interventions. Routledge: London.


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