My hands shake. I feel really sick in my tummy. I can't breathe properly. I'm sweating. I think everyone is staring and laughing at me. I'm terrified and lost for words. No one understands.
This is a real snippet of what it’s like for young person I support who experiences anxiety in social situations. Social anxiety is a debilitating and isolating condition that is growing in our society today particularly among our younger generations. Social Anxiety Ireland released data stating that social anxiety has affected 1 in 8 people in Ireland at any one point in time telling us that it's prevalent and real for the people who experience it.
I’m nervous young person but am I socially anxious?
There are many types of anxieties so it’s worth completing a thorough evaluation with a psychiatrist to see what’s going on for you. With a social anxiety it’s likely that you’ll experience intense physical signs of anxiety including sweating, blushing, stuttering, respiratory distress and nausea when faced with social and performance situations. You may also notice persistent worrying thoughts about how you look, what others might be thinking about you and that you are forever saying and doing the “wrong” thing.
What exacerbates social anxiety?
1. Avoidance. Lockdown turned out to be a dream for many teens and young people with social anxiety. Avoidance can present in subtle changes to your day to day behaviours such as avoiding eye contact, not texting a friend back, or changing your walking route to avoid seeing familiar faces. It can also present in more obvious behaviours such as regularly avoiding leaving your home, cancelling social plans and/or spending time online instead of face to face with people. Avoidance is one of the greatest contributors to social anxiety.
2. Fearing becoming anxious. Anticipatory worry about what might go wrong is likely heightening your physical and mental symptoms before you’re even left your home.
3. Thinking negatively. Are you jumping to conclusions about what might happen? Thinking worse-case scenario? (It’s going to be a disaster) Catastrophising? (I’ll probably trip over and make a fool out of myself) Overgeneralising? (everyone is more confident than me). These types of thinking patterns are all distortions on reality and often irrational ways of looking at situations and people.
4. Comparing yourself. The yardstick of recovery is how you’re doing this time this year compared to last month or last year – not compared to anyone else. If you compare yourself to others, you’ll likely always find someone more confident, more friendly, more assertive and so on.
5. Believing you can’t change. You were born this way and will never change. I see young people prove themselves wrong time after time; by attending school and college day after day despite the challenges, by making friends, joining social groups and speaking up for themselves. For some people change might mean leaving their home once a week or reconnecting with someone over a text message. Change is different for everyone.
6. Living in silence. Worrying about what others might think about us can lead us to live in a silent world full of shame. This can fuel low mood and suicidal thoughts for lots of people. You might be surprised to learn that lots of other people experience social anxiety and that you’re not alone. By reaching out and sharing your struggles you might just help yourself.
Quick tips to manage social anxiety?
Calmer body = calmer mind: I speak about how to help anxiety in your body in my other article on TheJournal.ie linked here. It might be helpful to use distraction techniques involving your physical body during social encounters. Practice squeezing a ball in your pocket as you practice eye contact or pressing your hands into the side of your legs as you stand tall. Some people find it useful to squeeze their shoulder blades back to encourage them to look up. Take slow deep breaths to ignite a calmer state overall.
Mindfulness: Instead of trying to avoid being in the moment, practice doing the opposite. Practice being present. Look around you, notice a colour and see if you can find other things in that colour. You can watch a video on practicing mindfulness on my website here.
Check in with your thoughts: Begin to understand your thinking style (mentioned in the thinking negatively paragraph). Write in a journal on a regular basis or take some notes on your phone. By doing this you might start to catch yourself jumping to a conclusion about a social interaction for example.
Preparation: prepare conversations before you meet someone. Pick topics to ask a question about. Doing some research can help alleviate awkwardness in the moment. Practice speaking in front of a mirror, looking at yourself. Record yourself on your phone speaking. Practice walking and standing tall, by standing and walking in a confident manner you will naturally feel and act more confident.
Get help: Talk to a professional or others who may be experiencing social anxiety. Social Anxiety Ireland have a great range of resources and support group options listed on their website here. You could also email/ write a note explaining your anxiety and send it to your therapist prior to your first session. There’s lots of support out there: Occupational Therapy plays an important role in recovery for people with social anxiety whereby an OT will practice skills with you in real life scenarios. You can read more about OT with young people and adults with social anxiety here. There are also a range of psychological approaches such as CBT (Cognitive behavioural Therapy) and ACT (Acceptance and commitment Therapy) that are proven to be very effective. These approaches can help you to change negative thinking and thought patterns that cause you to feel stuck. Remember, you’re not alone in your journey and change is possible.
A client of mine recently explained social anxiety it to me like swimming in the sea with no land in sight- a terrifying and lonely experience. Be kind to those around you, you never know what some else might be dealing with.
Michelle Murray is a Mental Health Occupational Therapist and Trauma Sensitive Yoga Facilitator. If you’re interested in learning more about how Occupational Therapy support might be able to help you reach out to Michelle Murray at Anchor Therapy www.anchortherapy.ie. Michelle can also be found on Facebook and Instagram as the_wellness_anchor where she posts regular tips and tricks to support your mental health.