If you find it difficult to do the things you want to do in a social setting (examples: standing in line to meet a favorite television star, or attending a large convention or conference), please know that overcoming social anxiety is possible with therapy.
The Causes of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety causes are numerous and can originate from a combination of several factors. The mental health condition can develop from a biological standpoint, a genetic trait passed down from one generation to the next, a learned behavior from past experiences, or a combination of all three.
Social Anxiety and the Brain
The amygdala, a small set of neurons in the brain that controls our reactions to fear, can go into overdrive in some people. Most of the time, the hippocampus, another region in the brain, perceives the threat and assists the amygdala in either preparing your body to fight (or run) or to ignore the threat altogether.
For example, if you meet a bear in the woods, your amygdala and hippocampus will perceive the bear as a threat, and you will react with fear. However, if you see a bear in a zoo, your brain will translate the experience and reassure you that you have nothing to fear.
Social Anxiety and Genetics
A study from the Institute of Human Genetics at the University in Bonn recently concluded that genetics do play a role in social anxiety. According to the study, a serotonin transporter gene known as SLC6A4 correlates with social anxiety. Researchers continue studying how serotonin levels in individuals with social anxiety cause the condition.Another study published in 2015 in the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) Psychiatry, found that individuals with social anxiety produce too much serotonin in the brain. This finding calls into question whether SSRIs (a category of drugs often used to treat anxiety and depression) actually work to control social anxiety.
These medications inhibit the brain from reabsorbing serotonin, increasing the chemical in the brain. More extensive research is needed to clarify if low levels or high levels of serotonin in the brain trigger social anxiety disorder.
Social Anxiety and Learned Behaviors
Some people develop social anxiety after enduring an embarrassing or humiliating experience. For example, a teenager from an unkempt home may be teased at school over the scent lingering on their clothes. As he or she ages, they may become self-conscious about how they smell – worried that people will judge them or that they will offend others.
Other negative experiences like trauma or abuse can trigger the development of anxiety that can expand into social settings. Children also pick up on the behaviors of their parents and siblings and may mirror their family member’s social phobia.
Social anxiety causes disruptions in the person’s life including how they view themselves. The anxiety creates low self-esteem, isolation, and negative thoughts about what people might think about them. Some people turn to substance use such as drugs or alcohol to manage a frightening situation.
The Signs of Social Anxiety
The signs of social anxiety and avoidance include emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms.
- You worry that people will judge you or talk harshly about you after you leave.
- You are self-conscious about your body and worried you will embarrass yourself.
- You can’t seem to make eye contact with people for very long.
- You have an overwhelming fear of meeting strangers.
- You avoid social situations even with people you know.
- You have physical reactions (nausea, stomach upset) to anticipating a social gathering.
- You over-analyze your conversations and actions after an event.
- You experience shaking, rapid heartbeat, sweating, blushing, dizziness, or muscle tension before a social event.
- Your anxiety is preventing you from going to school or work and socializing with your friends.
- Your anxiety is causing relationship problems with your family because you refuse to go places with them, like to the movies or a theme park.
- You find you are having trouble starting conversations, returning items to a store, or complaining about a restaurant meal.
Sometimes you will feel as if you have a handle on your anxiety. At times, you may wonder if you’ve outgrown it only to have something trigger the symptoms, such as overwhelming stress, huge life milestones, or trauma.
For example, a woman with a history of social anxiety may have overcome the condition years ago, but after experiencing an estrangement with her grown adult daughter and a move to a new house in another state, the woman may suddenly find she is in the grip of anxiety once again.
You can also have other mental health conditions in conjunction with social anxiety. Some people also develop generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, seasonal depression, or major depression. If you are exhibiting the symptoms of social anxiety, speak to your primary physician. Social phobia may be an indicator of underlying depression and anxiety.
Overcoming Social Anxiety with Therapy
There are ways to overcome social anxiety. You are not alone as hundreds of thousands of people suffer from the condition each year. It is important to get help from a professional when you feel that you are showing the signs of social anxiety as it can expand into all areas of your life.
Choosing a healthier lifestyle can diminish some of the symptoms of anxiety. This includes reducing your intake of caffeine and avoiding substances like alcohol and drugs. Eating a healthier diet of fruits, vegetables, complex carbohydrates, and proteins with healthy fats will provide your body with more nutrients than a diet of fast food and preservatives.
Keep track of your symptoms by journaling the circumstances leading up to your anxiety. What thoughts are going through your head? How do you feel physically and emotionally? You can show your journal entries to your physician or therapist to give them an idea of what your mindset is before, during, and after a social event.
Stress exacerbates anxiety. Make sure that you are taking time for yourself. Rest and spend time in prayer. You may want to begin practicing Pilates, yoga, or another type of low impact stretching routine to relieve stress and have a few moments to yourself. Some people find that meditation in a quiet room or while listening to music is soothing and helps to focus their minds on something else.
A common exercise in social anxiety therapy is to prepare for a social event by imagining you are at the gathering and socializing with guests. Practice what you will say to other people and how you will behave. Ask open-ended questions so the guests cannot answer with a simple Yes or No. You can ask about their family, occupation, hobbies, and interests.
If you seek social anxiety treatment from a mental health care professional, depending on the severity of your condition, the therapist may recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, and/or medications like antidepressants or SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is successfully used for several anxiety disorders including panic disorder, OCD, and PTSD. CBT focuses on shifting perspectives to change reactions. You will learn to identify the negative thoughts and emotions before a social situation.
However, instead of accepting these thoughts and feelings at face value and avoiding the event, you will learn to change your thoughts. By shifting your perception, you will gain control over your emotions and your behavior.
Talk therapy is another common social anxiety treatment that may only take 12 to 20 sessions for beneficial results, depending on the complexity of the disorder and if it is combined with other mental health conditions.
Your physician may add medications like sertraline, known as Zoloft (SSRI), or an antidepressant such as bupropion, known as Wellbutrin. Your physician will discuss the advantages, side effects, and interactions with you before prescribing a new medication. If you have any questions, feel free to ask your pharmacist before taking any new medicine.
You can overcome social anxiety. Try some of the tips listed above and seek help from a therapist who can teach you new ways of coping with feelings of anxiousness.
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