Social anxiety is a crippling fear of becoming the focus of attention, and worry about what other people are thinking about you. Self help and professional care can reduce the impact on your life.
About social anxiety
People with social anxiety disorder get so anxious and distressed in social situations that they often try to avoid those situations altogether.
Usually, this means worrying about being judged negatively by other people, or worrying about behaving in an embarrassing way.
A person with social anxiety disorder might be scared of one specific situation (like speaking up in a meeting at work) or lots of different situations (like giving a speech, being watched while writing or eating in front of people).
Self help and professional support can reduce the impact of social anxiety.
When we are exposed to a physical threat, our bodies automatically gear up to fight or run away – this is called the fight-flight-freeze response.
We become more alert, our heart starts racing, our muscles tense up, we sweat more and breathe more quickly.
These changes are designed to protect us from danger. They help us to run quickly to safety or fight the 'enemy'.
But sometimes our fight-flight-freeze response is activated when it’s not actually helpful (that is, when there is no real danger). When people with social anxiety find themselves in a situation where they are worried they will be judged, the fight-flight-freeze response fires up. Some or all of the following sensations might be triggered:
- racing heart
- dizziness or feeling faint
- sweating or hot flushes
- trembling or shaking
- mind going ‘blank’
- nausea or butterflies in the stomach.
Actions and avoidance
Because the feelings associated with the fight-flight-freeze response are so unpleasant, our usual response is to get away from the situation that's causing anxiety.
A person with social anxiety might start making up excuses or reasons to avoid situations that create anxiety.
While this might seem sensible, avoiding these situations is actually counterproductive. It stops you from learning that they’re not really dangerous situations (and even if you do get anxious, you can handle it) and confirms the anxiety these situations create.
Thoughts and beliefs
People with social anxiety often have unhelpful thoughts about their own behaviour or how they are being judged by others. For example:
- "They must think I look silly and sound pathetic."
- "I am going to stuff this up."
- "I won’t know what to say."
- "Everyone can see how anxious I am."
Negative self talk like this makes anxiety worse. It reinforces anxious thoughts and normalises these reactions to various situations. It can make you more self conscious.
You are not alone
Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common types of anxiety. About one-in-twelve people, or almost 2 million Australians, will experience it at some point in their lives.
Research suggests social anxiety might be more common among older veterans, with about one-in-seven Vietnam veterans affected. Amongst ex-serving members more broadly, about 11% of transitioned ADF members experience social anxiety disorder in a given year.
Many people with social anxiety suffer from other mental health problems as well. So if you find self-help techniques don't resolve your social anxiety, it is worth considering professional help as it could open the door to resolving other issues affecting your quality of life.
Compared to the average person, someone with social anxiety is almost five times more likely to have depression, and almost three times as likely to have a problem with drugs or alcohol.
What treatments can help me?
One of the most effective treatments for social anxiety disorder is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT recognises that the way we think and act affects the way we feel. With the help of a therapist, CBT will help you learn:
- to better understand the symptoms, causes and impact of social anxiety
- to challenge your fears and worries related to the social situations that bother you (such as worries that you might say the wrong thing during a job interview)
- to face the situations that you’re afraid of and usually avoid, in a gradual and manageable way
- assertiveness and conversational skills (if necessary)
- a range of relaxation activities including breathing exercises and other strategies to help you manage the physical symptoms of anxiety.
CounsellingOpen Arms can provide individual, couple and family counselling to help improve your resilience, as well as enhance your mental health and wellbeing. Call 1800-011-046 for free and confidential 24/7 support.
Visit a GP
A GP is always a good place to start when trying to overcome Generalise Anxiety Disorder, as they can refer you to specialists, and, if necessary, support your efforts with medications. If you are a Veteran, ask for a Veteran Health Check.
Group programUnderstanding anxiety
A program that teaches you strategies and skills for managing anxiety.
There are a number of resources you could use on your own or preferably together with your therapist to help you address some of the symptoms of social anxiety.
Our self-help tools can help you manage your anxiety and deal with unhelpful thoughts
Relax Your Body and Slow Your Breathing to reduce social anxiety
Social anxiety causes a range of physical symptoms that are unpleasant and make it difficult to think clearly.
The Progressive Muscle Relaxation tool teaches you how to tense and relax different muscle groups in your body to relieve stress.
The Controlled Breathing tool teaches you how to slow your breathing rate.
These tools will help you manage the physical symptoms of anxiety, so you can feel calmer and release tension from your body.
You can also access these tools on the High Res app to use on the go.
Learn to think differently about social situations
The way that you think influences the way you feel. Thinking about social situations in an unhelpful way can make you feel more anxious and more likely to withdraw from others. Sometimes its helpful to think differently about social situations.
Use the Reassess Your Thoughts tool to help you to identify the thoughts about social situations that are making you feel stressed. Then you can start reassessing unhelpful thoughts.
This tool is also available on the High Res app to use on the go. Look for Quick Ways to Re-assess Your Thoughts.
Learn more about social anxiety
Useful materials are available from beyondblue, the Clinical Research Unit for Anxiety and Depression and SANE.
- Mental Health Online An internet-based treatment clinic providing access to information, clinical assessment and treatment programs.
- A useful self-help book is Overcoming shyness and social phobia by Ron Rapee (published in 1998 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.)
"I reckon I was OK until high school. It was there that I started to get really anxious if I had to do a presentation to the class. I’d worry about it for days and the night before I couldn’t sleep. When it came to the presentation, I’d be sweating, blushing, my mouth would go dry ... it was like torture. It felt like everyone in the class was laughing at me. Other social situations were really difficult too."