An article published in Psychology Today on loneliness brings up an interesting truth about isolation. The more isolated people are, the more their brains go into fight or flight mode, making them feel unsafe in social situations. That means that isolation actually breeds social anxiety without us realizing it.
What is social anxiety? Social anxiety or social phobia refers to “the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people.”
Social anxiety can encroach on someone slowly if they spend a lot of time alone. It’s not as if someone mails you a letter that says, “congratulations! you’ve got social anxiety disorder!” it’s much more subtle than that, and frankly it’s not something that we ever expect to happen.
As we move out of the highly social environments (like school) we are in for the first two decades or so of our lives, we find we aren’t used to needing to make a significant effort to interact with others.
First, we will look at the symptoms of social anxiety so we are aware of them. Then, we have some practical steps for you to work through social anxiety with ease because we want you to enjoy your life to the fullest.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
If you’re wondering, ‘do I have social anxiety?’ Here are some of the social anxiety symptoms. Avoiding hanging out with people is a tendency of social anxiety. Being too busy is often something we convince ourselves of because of underlying social anxiety. We often give ourselves extra things to do to make it seem as if we don’t have any time to just rest and relax, leaving us closed off to the possibility of vulnerable, unpredictable situations with others.
Feeling as if others are judging you or feeling self-conscious is another sign of social phobia. According to the Mayo Clinic, you may experience physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, butterflies, blushing, sweating, shaking or having a wavering voice. It can get in the way of being able to do daily activities.
You may worry about simple interactions and big events, avoid speaking to strangers, not be able to enjoy the company of others, and constantly replay and over-analyze things you said to others during the day. Social anxiety can be the cause of health conditions as serious as obesity and heart disease, as our bodies are hardwired to need and grow from social interaction.
Read this next: Anxiety: Why It’s More Than Just Worrying
How to Overcome Social Anxiety
Here are some ideas on how to overcome social anxiety. As mentioned before, the brain will start to make you feel more threatened by others the more isolated you become, preparing you to expect that people will harm you emotionally. This paranoia can be overridden by creating new habits one day at a time.
Seek Support & References
You don’t have to go through this alone. Believe it or not, social anxiety is the third largest mental health problem in the US and there are many highly effective support groups for people trying to understand it and overcome it. To find a meeting near you, check out The National Social Anxiety Center, Meetup, The Anxiety & Depression Association of America, or ask a therapeutic practice for references.
It really helps to know you’re not alone and a supportive group is an affordable way to practice being around people you can relate to.
Find a Specialized Therapist
You may want to start by seeing a therapist who specializes in anxiety, shyness, and social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety may be making you avoid both positive and negative attention which can affect all areas of life. You can supplement therapy with this workbook which helps you overcome social anxiety.
One of the best tools for anxiety is to start practicing deep breathing. Taking slow and deep breaths in and out of your nose helps soothe your nerves in any situation or when you start worrying. Try some of the meditation apps that have guided breathing exercises and meditations for anxiety.
Unplug from Constant Messaging
Spend less time on social media and more time having face-to-face conversations. Even speaking up about your social anxiety to people you’re comfortable with can help to overcome it.
Social media has created more isolation than ever before in our society, which in turn has created more social anxiety. We aren’t having deep, open conversations nearly as often and it’s affecting our brains and our nerves. Make an effort to limit your electronic time in little ways, like make a Facetime call instead of texting. If you want to catch up with someone, drive to a middle point and chat over coffee.
Work on Face-to-Face Communication Slowly
Being around people more will start to get you used to feel safe in conversations again. If you don’t know where to start, you can make a list of things that interest you, a topic that you want to learn more about, or a skill you’d like to develop. Then look for groups and classes about those activities and sign yourself up. Try out book clubs and adult sports leagues.
Volunteer in Your Community
Volunteering can be a good way to get involved in your community; just attending community events so you’re not cooped up at home can help create social momentum too.
When your brain sees people laughing, you’ll be surprised at how that energy can give you a boost of confidence. Even carrying on simple conversations with people can help you to stop fearing everyone so much. Take baby steps and don’t overwhelm yourself.
Do Something Slightly Out of Your Comfort Zone
The old “do something a day that scares you” saying doesn’t work, especially for those with social anxiety. So why not commit to one small baby step a week, or even a month, to test the waters, and build out comfort zone.
Invite people over for tea or dinner, or make a plan to go to the movies with a friend. You can use Skype to catch up with friends who have moved and see how they are doing. Making an effort to do things with people you already trust can help ease the tension in your nerves, proving to yourself that you can have fun when you open yourself up to others.
It’s important not to push these feelings down, or fall too deeply into them. Face your anxious thoughts and give them the time and attention they need in order to work through them. Turn your thoughts towards a better and more fun outcome instead of thinking about what could go wrong. Each time you feel anxious, notice it and then override it with an affirmation like, “I’m fine and this is fun.”
Decide that you will not make fear-based decisions and just start saying yes to invitations, or begin inviting people to do things with you. Bringing along someone you’re comfortable with a social event will help you maintain your confidence.
The more you commit to working through the anxiety of being around people, the easier it will get.
Related article: How To Stop Anxiety From Sabotaging Your New Relationship
* Editor’s note: This article was previously published June 16th, 2018 and has been updated for relevance and accuracy.