We've all seen that meme about the relief you feel when someone cancels plans last-minute, but if it rings a little too true for you, it might be worth considering the possibility that you're suffering from social anxiety disorder.
Many confuse social anxiety it with shyness, which is an equally valid emotion but one with totally different effects. While 99 percent of the population have felt nervous around new people at least once in their lives, social anxiety digs far deeper than that initial shyness, and leaves sufferers with long-lasting emotional and physical effects.
We spoke with Integrative Psychotherapeutic Counsellor Liz Ritchie, who specialises in self-care and body image. She broke down exactly what social anxiety is, and created a test for you to take if you think you could be affected.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder (also referred to as social phobia) is one of the most common mental disorders. Social phobia can cause sufferers to be paranoid, nervous, and experience a panic attack.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, about five in a hundred people have some degree of social phobia, with women two or three times more likely to be affected.
"There's no single known cause of social anxiety disorder," Liz tells Cosmopolitan UK. "Research dictates that it's potentially biological, it could be psychological, and also is influenced by environmental factors.
"An individual’s environmental and social experiences will also undoubtedly shape the progression of social anxiety disorder; ie, those who may have a a significant exposure to high anxiety provoking situations. Other likely contributory factors are low self-esteem/self-worth, depression, lack of social skills and certain personality traits.
What's the difference between social anxiety and feeling shy?
"Social anxiety can often be confused with mere shyness, but there are significant differences between both," explains Liz. "Shyness is classified as a personality trait, whereas social anxiety in contrast is defined by fear, embarrassment and humiliation, generally triggered by social situations in which the individual is expected to perform or interact."
"Shyness is classified as a personality trait, whereas social anxiety is defined by fear"
How do you know you’ve got social anxiety?
Common physical signs and symptoms of social anxiety may include:
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Feeling faint or dizzy in social situations
- Gastric problems, i.e. ulcers
- Inability to catch breath/feeling of panic
- Sweating or feeling flushed
- Loss of Libido
Social anxiety may also trigger the below psychological effects:
- Severe low self-esteem and self-worth
- Fear of judgment or criticism
- Excessive self-consciousness and anxiety in everyday social situations
- Extreme feelings of fear inferiority
- Irrational thoughts and perception
- Severe depression
- Emotional outbursts
- Panic attacks
If you've experienced some of the above, but aren't sure whether this can be contributed to social anxiety, Liz has put together a test to indicate whether you could be suffering. While the only people who can diagnose you with social anxiety disorder are medical and psychological professionals, answering yes to the majority of the below questions could be an indicator that you should seek help.
Take the test
Do you blush easily in front of others?
Do you avoid strangers?
Do you avoid social settings/situations?
Do social situations and meeting new people frighten you?
Are you uncomfortable with people in authority?
Do you actively avoid speaking to people because you will get embarrassed?
Do you find criticism difficult?
Do you feel that others judge you?
Do you feel panic to the point that your heart starts racing when you are in a social situation
Do you hate being the centre of attention?
Do you isolate yourself from any potential social situation?
Do you feel awkward in the company of people you don’t know?
What to do if you're suffering from social anxiety
Think you could be affected? There are a number of ways to help ease symptoms, including:
CBT therapy: "One of the most effective treatments so far has been cognitive behavioural therapy, which is a collaborative therapy which helps the person suffering from anxiety to explore what maintains the symptoms," Liz says. "They learn skills to notice the thoughts, to start seeing the thoughts, to question and to challenge them. And ultimately to reframe them, and put them in a different place. In an ideal world, the fear becomes less bad than the sufferer anticipated."
Guided self-help: Therapy can be costly, but self-help can be effective in managing social anxiety, as recommended by the NHS.
Liz explains: "One of the things I would advise, to take control of your feelings, is to keep a journal. It can be very effective to write about thoughts and experiences, and to see the thoughts written down takes them out of your head and deactivates them. It's out of your head, so it creates more brain space to work on things that potentially are more positive and effective.
"Relaxation can be helpful as it gives you a sense of doing something for yourself. Start tweaking the mindset a little bit, which says 'I want to do something for me'."
Staying active: "Yoga and relaxation will reduce the physical symptoms such as the heart racing, the palpitations, and the trembling," says Liz.
"Changing that mindset and seeing a little bit of improvement gives you a sense of achievement, and that can be more effective than you'd imagine. It's a reciprocal process, you also have to be involved to get the outcome you want."