Expert-backed Tips For Handling Social Anxiety

Expert-backed Tips For Handling Social Anxiety

The majority of us feel a touch of social anxiety from time to time. Whether it’s feeling nervous about giving a toast or simply meeting new people at a BBQ, social anxiety can affect us all in different ways. But fear not, Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK and Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist for Healthspan, share everything you need to know from the common culprits that trigger your symptoms, strategies to cope with social settings and ways to boost your social confidence.

What is social anxiety?

“Social anxiety disorder is a recognised mental health condition that can affect your self-confidence, relationships, work and everyday activities,” says Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa UK. “You may have a fear of social or performance situations, or worry about what other people think of you. If you have social anxiety disorder, you might feel extremely uncomfortable in certain situations and worry a lot in the run-up to them. You may even go out of your way to avoid situations or events that you know you’ll find particularly stressful.

Who can be affected by social anxiety?

Many people can be affected by Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – mental health does not discriminate, after all. “It was thought that women were more affected by social anxiety than men, but recent research has suggested that as women have closed the gap in educational and occupational opportunities, their levels of social anxiety have evened out with men,” says Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist for Healthspan and author of The Shrinkology Solution. “In fact, one study demonstrated that men addicted to the internet had higher levels of social anxiety than women, showing that characteristics such as gender are often mediated by other factors.

And although social anxiety can affect anyone, it can be particularly disruptive to the lives of young people – this is a time when identities are formed, and life can feel like a series of difficult decisions to be made, like where to go to university or whether to go into further education at all, for example. “For young people with SAD, the social aspect of these decision can feel overwhelming and indeed, experiencing SAD during adolescents and young adulthood is a predictor for depression in later life,” Meg continues. “But this doesn’t mean every young person with SAD will be depressed as an adult – it’s just a risk factor.”

Why does it happen?

Theories suggest that social anxiety can stem from our childhood – we might have felt criticised by our parents and that ‘nothing was good enough’ and so now dread social gathering for fear of getting or saying something wrong, for example. And this may be the case for some but, like all mental health disorders, the cause of SAD is complex. “A genetic predisposition, biological factors, a person’s innate temperament, cognitive processes and thoughts, peer relationships, adversity in life and parenting can ALL contribute to development and maintenance of SAD,” says Meg.

How can you recognise your triggers?

If you have a fear of social or performance situations, understanding what triggers your symptoms can help you to cope with them. “Common triggers include meeting strangers or new people, having to speak in public or in meetings, being the centre of attention, attending social gatherings or parties, being observed or watched, or being teased or criticised,” Pablo explains. “Events like these can trigger high levels of anxiety, causing physical symptoms such as sweating, flushing, increased heart rate, trembling and nervousness.”

Can you overcome it?

Social anxiety is not something that’s easily cured – it can take a long time to overcome it. But Pablo says sometimes, the first step in conquering your fears is just to face them head on: “It might sound scary, but being exposed – in a controlled way – to situations that cause you anxiety may actually help you to overcome that anxiety. If you do find yourself feeling anxious, try focusing on your breathing; breathing slowly and deeply from your tummy, and focusing on having a steady breath, can help to slow your heart rate down and in turn, your thoughts.”

Plus, a large-scale review of over 13,000 people found that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was the best treatment for SAD – better than practical exposure or social skills training. “This is because the interconnection between thoughts, feeling, and behaviour can be reset, so that negative thought patterns and feelings are overcome, resulting in different behaviours and ability to enjoy life,” Meg explains.

Another way to quell your anxiety is to focus on things you like doing. “When you participate in work or social activities that you like and are good at, your confidence and wellbeing increases,” Pablo continues. “But if you do feel overwhelmed it’s important to take time out for breaks. This may involve a trip to the bathroom, or a quick walk around the block to clear your head, and can make a big difference to how you feel.”

He also suggests trying to develop an awareness of your triggers, so when your anxiety flares up, it can help you to take positive action. And it's good to talk – find someone to confide in about your anxieties and concerns, you may find that you could provide mutual support throughout what would otherwise be an uncomfortable experience. And of course, if you feel like you need additional help for your social anxiety, speak to a doctor about ways to manage the condition. “Bupa have recently extended their mental health offering to provide the most comprehensive service for customers, and our Mental Health Direct Access service allows customers to go straight to a specialist without the need for a GP referral.”

For those times when you’re out and about in a social setting and feel the anxiety setting in, Meg gives the following tips to help you break the cycle of anxiety…

  • Note down what you’re thinking when you start to feel anxious: Either before or during the social interaction.

  • Watch out in particular for ‘mind-reading’ or ‘fortune telling’ thought patterns: For example, do you think people are judging you negatively or do you assume you’ll make a faux pas? These are common ‘cognitive distortions’ in social anxiety that can lead to feelings of insecurity, fear and panic.

  • Once you become aware of your thoughts, you can change them: Ask yourself, “What are the alternatives?” Perhaps the person you’re with thinks what you’re saying is interesting – or perhaps they’re just thinking about what to have for dinner! Perhaps the party you’re dreading will be fine, fun even. Start to imagine these alternatives in detail – build a more positive picture in your mind.

  • If you have some physical symptoms such as blushing or shaking, don’t assume that anyone else is aware of them: Usually people are too caught up in their own minds and thought patterns to notice such things.

  • Use breathing techniques: This will activate the anxiety-reducing parasympathetic nervous system which will help to lessen any of these physical manifestations.

  • CBD Oil has been shown to help: It’s important to buy from a reputable source such as Healthspan, whose products are approved by the Cannabis Trade Association for purity. Cannabidiol helps to reduce muscle tension, restlessness and fatigue. In a study involving people with social anxiety, taking CBD supplements before a public speaking engagement reduced anxiety, muddled thoughts, social discomfort and anticipatory anxiety significantly more than placebo. 

  • Don’t avoid social situations: Start slowly and garner support from loved ones, but do put yourself out there.

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