What Is Social Anxiety and How Can You Overcome It?

Social anxiety is a common type of anxiety disorder. It is estimated that this mental health condition affects 15 million adults in the US (or 6.8% of the country’s population). Social anxiety is often misunderstood, with many people confusing it with introversion or shyness, which are character traits that don’t necessarily interfere with an individual’s quality of life or ability to form and maintain healthy relationships. Social anxiety, on the other hand, can be an extremely painful and disruptive condition to live with.

It’s worth emphasizing that if you live with social anxiety, you don’t have to let it rule your life. In fact, there are many effective techniques for overcoming this mental health condition.

What is Social Anxiety?

When you suffer from social anxiety, social situations can fill you with an intense feeling of nervousness and worry. The condition can manifest before, during, and after such situations have occurred. Common triggers for SAD sufferers include:

  • Meeting strangers
  • Public speaking
  • Small talk
  • Being the center of attention
  • Being watched while doing something
  • Being teased or criticized
  • Dating
  • Eating or drinking in public
  • Attending social gatherings

When you have social anxiety, your inner world can be exhausting. Your emotional experiences can be characterized by:

  • Excessive self-consciousness and anxiety in everyday situations
  • Intense worry for days, weeks, and even months about a future social situation
  • Extreme fear of being watched and judged by others, especially by strangers
  • Persistent worry that you will humiliate or embarrass yourself
  • Fear that others will notice you’re nervous

Social anxiety involves physical symptoms too. They include:

  • Red face or blushing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Trembling or shaking (including a shaky voice)
  • Mumbling or speaking very quietly
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Racing heart or tightness in the chest
  • Sweating hot flashes
  • Clammy hands
  • Feeling dizzy or faint

People who live with social anxiety also tend to engage in negative coping mechanisms, such as:

  • Avoiding social situations that cause anxiety, which ends up limiting a person’s activities and stops them from building relationships
  • Staying quiet or in the background of a social situation
  • Never going to a social situation alone
  • Drinking or using drugs before/during social situations in order to soothe one’s nerves

Social anxiety is closely tied to other mental health issues, including low self-esteem and depression. It is also common for sufferers to use alcohol to cope with social anxiety, as drinking lowers inhibitions, reduces tension and nerves, and encourages positive feelings and relaxation. Other drugs, such as cocaine, may also temporarily relieve the symptoms of social anxiety, giving users a big boost in self-confidence. However, alcohol and drugs tend to act as crutches for people living with social anxiety, masking the problem, and failing to provide a long-term solution. Here are some healthier, more effective techniques for coping.

How to Overcome Social Anxiety

There are many useful strategies that will help you to overcome (or, at least, manage) your social anxiety. These include:

  • Exposure. Whether done on your own or through relevant therapy, such as exposure therapy, gradually exposing yourself to situations you fear will help you to gradually reduce your anxiety about such situations. When you repeatedly act against your impulses to avoid socializing, you will learn that the situations aren’t as threatening as your anxiety makes them out to be. This will also help you to build self-confidence.
  • Meditation. Mindfulness meditation can teach you how to observe anxious thoughts and feelings without becoming entangled in them. This helps to reduce their intensity and power, allowing you to simply sit with social anxiety and stop it from controlling your behavior. Loving-kindness meditation is a great practice to have alongside mindfulness meditation. This other ancient meditation technique helps you to treat yourself in a kind and compassionate manner, which is important for SAD sufferers, who often struggle with low self-esteem and self-criticism.
  • Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Certain lifestyle habits can worsen anxiety while others can reduce it. For example, drinking, substance abuse, caffeine, poor sleep, isolation, and an unhealthy diet can make social anxiety symptoms much more difficult to handle. In contrast, habits that help to mitigate anxiety include regular exercise, restful sleep, having a routine that involves seeing people, and a balanced diet, low in sugar and processed foods, and high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

If you suffer from social anxiety, you may find it an embarrassing and shameful condition to live with. This may apply to men, in particular, who often feel that masculinity is wrapped up with being outgoing, extremely confident, and able to be dominating and assertive in social situations.

It’s important to remember that there is no shame in having social anxiety. It can affect anyone and the causes of it are often outside of your control (underlying factors may include genetics, brain differences, upbringing, trauma, abuse, bullying, and societal expectations). But, these factors don’t make social anxiety a permanent issue. By implementing the above techniques, you can deal with the condition in a healthy way and lead a happy, fulfilling life.