“Oh the nerves, the nerves; the mysteries of this machine called man! Oh the little that unhinges it, poor creatures that we are!” ~Charles Dickens
Heart palpitations, sweaty palms, dry mouth, flushed face, nausea, and dizziness…must be your first date or a job interview, or maybe a big test…NOPE! You’re at a PARTY!!! HUH?? How can that be? Those are symptoms of anxiety or someone having a panic attack…but at a PARTY?? WHAT GIVES?!?!? Social Anxiety…
SOCIAL ANXIETY- (social phobia) “is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. You could say social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. It is a pervasive disorder and causes anxiety and fear in almost all areas of a person’s life”. (Social Anxiety Association)
This happens to be one of the largest mental health problems in the world today. Obviously, this doesn’t just affect people at parties; this affects them anywhere they are in the presence of others where they perceive they will be judged negatively. It can be quite debilitating, disrupting major aspects of their lives.
Aloof, cold, unfriendly, unapproachable, a “bitch”, stuck-up, angry, weird... these are some of the unflattering terms sometimes used to describe people with social anxiety. In reality, people with social anxiety are petrified, paralyzed by fear, and unable to relax and blend in.
People with social anxiety will appear withdrawn, shy, quiet, and even disinterested. They also may self-medicate with drugs or alcohol to lower that anxiety that may be holding them back in social settings.
- (There are many problems with this, one of which is when that person doesn’t know when to stop drinking. Without alcohol they could be reserved or shy; with alcohol they could be loud, boisterous, and obnoxious. This not only doesn’t solve the social anxiety issue, it also creates the very perception they were trying to avoid).
There are many triggers that cause significant distress for them; but ask yourself if you have experienced anxiety from any of these, because you may have social anxiety as well!
Being introduced to other people: How’s your handshake, is it firm or a dead fish when you meet people? Can you remember their name? Are you making eye contact?
Being teased or criticized: Friends like to “bust chops” with each other but for some, it is extremely embarrassing and/or anxiety-provoking. Victims of bullying experience significant anxiety in social settings, whether they are in the presence of the bully or not; they believe the people around them will start teasing them and embarrassing them…it’s very traumatic. At your job, maybe your work is being critiqued and you start thinking, “I must be really incompetent”, or “she must really not like me”.
Being the center of attention: While there are certainly some who love being the center of attention, people with social anxiety dread it, and they can be extremely embarrassed being the focal point in a social setting.
Many people do not like being the center of attention, it’s like the spotlight is on you, and you need to perform, while everyone else is watching and judging you. NO PRESSURE! It’s like walking into a room with a bunch of people in it and all of a sudden they are all looking at YOUUUUU…”OOOOOH, look who just walked in! Look at how he stands with those two legs of his, who does he think he is anyway??”
The reality is, THEY DON’T CARE!!! You got their attention for exactly 1.5 seconds and then they went back to what they were doing. You THINK they are devoting more time to you, studying you, analyzing you, smelling you, but they aren’t. (Well, maybe not smelling you…)
What I have learned over the years, (and a little bit from watching the movie High Anxiety Mel Brooks classic, highly recommend!), is sometimes if you want to go unnoticed you need to do something that is noticeable. If you feel like people are judging you for basically walking into a room and breathing why not give them something (intentionally) to focus on? One way to do this is doing something self-deprecating…that’s right, make fun of yourself! Poking fun at yourself, or even saying something about your social anxiety can actually diffuse the otherwise uncomfortable environment you are in. Then, like I said, they will resume what they were doing before, and you are in! I believe laughter is the “Great Diffuser”, it breaks the ice, eases tension, and makes those around you less anxious (including yourself)…but it needs to come from you. When you make fun of yourself or the situation, you know what you will find?? Other people there feel the same way or have been in the same situation.
Of course, it makes things a lot easier when you enter and see someone you know; make a point of going up to that person and greeting them. Don’t wait for them to come to you.]
Being watched or observed while doing something: “I always feel like, someone is watching me-eee”, sorry Maxwell reference there (Who knew who Maxwell was…where are my 80’s people?!). This is the ultimate in being judged; performing a task, or performing in general while people are watching you. “What are they thinking?” “Do they like what I’m doing?” “What if I mess up? They’re going to laugh at me” “They must think I’m incompetent”
Talking in a formal, public situation: Public speaking #1 fear (see the previous point) Another thing I have learned over the years from speaking in public is having tunnel vision. Actually, it is something I developed back in high school when I was a pitcher for the school baseball team. I was able to tune out the stimuli around me and only focus on what was in front of me. When I let distractions get in my head, my performance suffered. In public speaking situations, I would zone in on one or two friendly faces. When I did this I was able to tune out the rest of the stimulation around me and deliver my speech or whatever I was talking about. The longer I was up there the more at ease I was.
Meeting people in authority: Meeting important people or those who have influence can be quite intimidating. You are trying to put your best foot forward and make a good impression. What if you felt so anxious you avoided meeting them at all? What would the ramifications be? Missed opportunities, failed promotions, negative/false perceptions, loss of friends and significant others, etc.
Feeling insecure and out of place in social situations: How about sitting with a group of people and there is a conversation going on and you have absolutely nothing to contribute. And then the death knell strikes…someone turns to you and says...how come you’re not talking??? 😨
Other triggers for social anxiety: Making phone calls, ordering at a restaurant, returning something to a store, or raising your hand in class.
Some clients I have worked with report having a difficult time starting (or continuing) a conversation. And if they don’t have ready conversation topics to discuss, they try and avoid being in that situation in the first place. Here are some ideas to consider:
- Ask questions: Show genuine interest in the person you are with. Make sure they are not closed-ended questions, meaning questions that lead to “yes or no” answers or one-word answers. If you are listening to their answers you should be able to ask a follow-up question or two.
- Avoid the one-upmanship response: This isn’t a competition, responding with something that appears to outshine their response is a turn-off and a certain conversation killer. If they ask you a similar question you answer honestly, but you are avoiding being dismissive of their responses.
- Maximize similarities and redirect differences. There are more things that bind us than divide us. Emphasizing the differences can lead to unnecessary arguments or confrontations…certain conversation killers, AND a possible setback in progress working through social anxiety.
Remember, social anxiety is extremely common, more people have it than you think. Talking to a therapist about it can really help unburden you of this weight you are carrying. Sometimes knowing someone else struggling with social anxiety can help; support groups are a great way to see that you are not alone and to explore different ways to overcome your anxiety.
“It’s sad actually because my anxiety keeps me from enjoying things as much as I should at this age” -Amanda Seyfried
“Comedy is probably a way to deal with anxiety. Sometimes it’s a way of dealing with pain” -Hugh Grant
“It’s official: The biggest back-to-school bullies are anxiety, worry, and fear”-Chuck Norris
If you have any questions and/or comments please feel free to submit them here. I hope this was helpful and entertaining!