What is Social Anxiety Disorder and How Can I Overcome It?

It is a well-known fact that most people get nervous before a big speech or presentation in front of a large group of people. In fact, the majority of people do not consider themselves “good” public speakers. So when does shyness and nervousness turn into an actual phobia? Where is the line between being a nervous public speaker and having a Social Phobia or Social Anxiety Disorder? In this article, I hope to help you decipher between the two and learn more about an Anxiety Disorder that plagues so many people in today’s society: Social Anxiety Disorder (a.k.a. Social Phobia). If you are looking for a counselor in the San Diego area for your Anxiety Disorder, please contact me today for a free consultation. I have worked with and helped many individuals who suffered from all kinds of Anxiety Disorders, and can help you to confront your fears and overcome them so that you can lead a more relaxed and happier lifestyle.

How Do I Know If I Have a Problem?
As I said, it is quite common for most people to have a general fear of public speaking or to feel uncomfortable when put on the spot. Most people are self-conscious and can become shy when they have to do something out of their comfort zone – this is perfectly normal as long as it doesn’t interfere with your daily functioning. But Social Anxiety Disorder is much more than that, and it does interfere with a person’s daily functioning. Persons with this disorder will go to great lengths to avoid these types of situations. For instance, they may worry about the social event weeks ahead of time and call in sick or attempt to get out of it beforehand. They have an intense fear of embarrassing themselves in social situations, and avoid them altogether so that they are never put in a position where they may have to do something that they feel is beyond their comfort zone. The following are some common circumstances where people with Social Anxiety experience a great deal of stress and discomfort. Ask yourself if you would consider any of the following situations to be extremely bothersome:

  • Being introduced to new people/people you have never met before
  • Public speaking or performing
  • Having someone closely watch/supervise your actions
  • Going on a date
  • Taking tests/exams
  • Making an important phone call
  • Being called upon in a classroom situation or a business meeting
  • Attending social events

If you find yourself becoming increasingly nervous just by reading and imaging yourself in the aforementioned situations, then you may have a Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Disorder. Again, most people find some of these situations to be initially uncomfortable or unpleasant, but a person with an Anxiety Disorder will find them so overwhelming and unbearable that he/she will avoid them at all costs.

Understanding Social Anxiety Disorder/Social Phobia:

The two terms are used interchangeably, and they involve an irrational fear of social situations (such as the ones mentioned above). Typically, persons with Social Anxiety Disorder have a fear of being criticized or judged by others, and are scared of being publically embarrassed. Even a person who realizes his/her worst fears are most likely irrational, the anxiety associated with these feelings cannot be helped.

How is Social Anxiety Disorder Different from Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
With Social Anxiety Disorder/Social Phobia, a person has a specific fear of social situations (i.e. public speaking, meeting new people, etc.). A person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) may experience these same anxieties, but they are not restricted to solely social situations, and usually carry over to other aspects of that person’s life.

Signs and Symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder:

  • Excessive anxiety in and leading up to social situations (i.e. weeks or months ahead of time)
  • Extreme fear of being negatively judged, criticized, or embarrassed in some way
  • Feeling flushed when interacting in a social situation (i.e. red face)
  • Feeling as though your throat is closing up when you attempt to speak (i.e. shortness of breath)
  • Excessive sweating in socially uncomfortable situations
  • Increased heart rate, shakiness, and upset stomach in and leading up to social situations
  • Avoiding social situations at all costs, even if it means interfering with your daily functioning
  • Taking medications or drugs to “calm your nerves” before social situations (a.k.a. self-medicating)

How to Treat Social Anxiety Disorder:

Typically, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) works best for Anxiety Disorders. As stated in a previous blog, CBT is founded on the premise that if you can change your problematic thinking patterns, you can subsequently change your emotions and therefore alter your behaviors. CBT focuses on negative/problematic thought patterns, and attempts to change them into realistic thinking patterns so that you are better equipped to handle uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking situations. Some other things you can try on your own or between therapy sessions are as follows:

Tip #1: Control Your Breathing – It is impossible to hyperventilate when you concentrate on breathing deeply and slowly. If you experience a great deal of anxiety, you are very familiar that one of the things that happens first is that your breathing rate increases. You may begin to inhale and exhale more rapidly, which only contributes further to your feelings of anxiousness. If you focus on breathing deeply and slowly, you will be able to stop the physical symptoms of anxiety from happening.

Tip #2: Challenge Your Thoughts – This is also a major component of CBT, but challenging the negative thoughts you’re having that are associated with your social anxiety can be a great help in overcoming the uncomfortable symptoms. When you are in certain social situations that trigger extreme discomfort, ask yourself if what you’re thinking could actually be plausible. For example, if the situation is that you’re giving a presentation in front of a group of people, your thoughts may be: “I’m going to end up looking stupid and like I don’t know what I’m talking about. Everyone’s going to think that because I can’t say what I want to say properly that I must be an idiot.” You can challenge this negative thought by asking yourself something like: “Will people actually think that I’m stupid just because I seem nervous to present?” When you put your fears and anxieties into perspective and logically analyze them, you will come to see that perhaps your thinking is irrational. Eventually (with much practise) you will be able to replace your automatic negative thoughts with more realistic ones, which is the core of CBT.

Tip #3: Confront Your Fears – Avoidance is easy, but facing what you’re truly afraid of is much more difficult. In order to overcome your fears and anxieties though, you need to confront whatever it is that you’re most scared of. For example, if public speaking is what worries you the most, you could try to work your way up to speaking in front of a large group of people by starting with speaking in front of a small group of people that you know, like your close friends and family. Once you become more comfortable with this type of speaking, you can eventually work your way up to speaking in front of a large group of strangers. The first time is never easy, and you may even struggle the second or third time, but the point is that with practise, you will eventually be able to conquer your fears. When you recognize that nothing bad is going to happen to you (which comes with practise, time and time again), you will realize that even if you seem nervous or make a mistake that no one is judging you as harshly as you are judging yourself.

Social Anxiety Disorder can be debilitating and take over your life. It can interfere with normal, daily activities and prevent you from socializing with others. If you want to learn to conquer your fears and become better at interacting with others in social situations, give my San Diego office a call today for a consultation. I have helped several people overcome their Anxiety Disorders and guided them onto a path where anxiety no longer controls their everyday life. With professional help, you can also overcome your anxieties and be on your way to a happier, healthier lifestyle!  Call me at 858-481-0425 for more info.

Copyright ©2012 Jan Rakoff. All Rights Reserved.

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