First of all, can you define social anxiety for us?
In its simplest form, social anxiety is an overwhelming or unnerving feeling in and around social situations and environments. “Social anxiety is when you have a fear of people and social situations,” says career and life coach, Natalie Trice. “It is very much more than shyness or a phase – it's something that can take over your life and impact every element of it from school and uni, to relationships and careers. Given we’ve lived through a pandemic that has seriously changed the way we interact with family, friends and colleagues, as well as the way we work and socialise, it’s something many people could be struggling with at the moment.”
How is it different to things like generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) or panic disorder?
Generalized anxiety disorder or GAD is the most common anxiety disorder and is usually diagnosed after a person has anxiety, with little to provoke it, most days for a span of at least six months. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of GAD may include: feeling restless or on-edge; feeling fatigued often; difficulty focusing, irritability; excessive feelings of worry that are difficult to control; difficulty with sleeping. Panic disorders are characterised by unexpected and repeated panic attacks. People with panic attacks may try to avoid situations or constantly worry about when the next panic attack may happen.
What are some of the main symptoms of social anxiety?
The symptoms are different for everyone, but mainly you will feel fear, nervous, an increased heart rate, possible sweating, feelings of anxiousness and nausea. According to Natalie, things to look out for when it comes to social anxiety include:
Worrying about speaking at an event, on a Zoom call or at meetings
Blushing when you speak, as well as sweating, trembling and your mind going blank can all be a result of social anxiety
Not wanting people to look at you and finding it hard to look them in the eye.
A fear of being criticised and mulling this over constantly
Turning down events or leaving events early
Not going for a promotion or new job
Panic attacks due to the worry and stress you are feeling
Not wanting to leave home
Is there anything else social anxiety could be confused with?
While a lot of people can put mild social anxiety down to basic nerves, it certainly shouldn’t make you feel any of the above symptoms for a long time in a social environment. “Social anxiety needs to be talked over with a professional to get an exact diagnosis, as it could be confused with many other conditions that won't help you to feel better,” explains Natalie. “It could go from shyness to nerves, or clinical depression to more serious mental health issues. It’s important that these feelings and behaviours are discussed, and while that can feel hard, it's so much better to seek support before things get out of control and everything feels hard.”
What's the difference between actual anxiety and just feeling worried?
“Anxiety and social anxiety are ongoing conditions that can spiral out of control if you don't seek advice and professional help and are much more serious than worrying,” says Natalie. “They aren't to be dismissed or taken lightly. We all get worried about going to an interview or saying yes to a date, but when that becomes out of control and the fear doesn't go away or subside, it's more than worrying or being nervous.”
“Anxiety is an extreme form of worry and worry is a component of anxiety, they are closely linked but there are differences,” adds Jo Howarth, founder of The Happiness Club. “Most people worry about certain situations but that doesn't always lead to anxiety. Worry is also mostly to do with our thoughts whereas anxiety can be felt throughout the entire body. Often, anxiety is where the worry has become unrealistic, continuous and overwhelming.”
Why is social anxiety at an all-time high now?
“As mentioned above, we have been living through a global pandemic and our lives have been turned inside out and upside down,” explains Natalie. “These are challenging times and it’s no wonder our mental health and wellbeing is under pressure. As we spend less and less time with other people, the more we get used to it and as a result, going back to 'normal' can feel really hard and intimidating. Parties, packed nightclubs, buses and even busy bars might feel too much right now, even if they are things you used to love doing. No one is saying you must go back to how it was, but work out what feels best for you.”
Jo adds: “Anxiety is mostly future based: it’s about asking ourselves ‘What if this happens?’ and ‘What if that doesn't happen?’ convincing ourselves that the worst-case scenario is what will become reality. And right now, the worst-case scenario is potentially life threatening so in swoops anxiety to warn us that we are in danger. For me this is more about health anxiety than social anxiety – we are concerned about social situations because of the possible impact on our health more than because we are concerned about being judged by others. Although of course, with the division that has been created over the issues to do with the pandemic and lockdown, then that social anxiety of being judged by others can also come into play.”
What exacerbates social anxiety?
According to the experts, the pandemic has changed how society interacts – which is only exacerbating people’s symptoms right now. “Many people have had limited interaction with other people outside of their bubble and many people have now been functioning within an online safe environment, so many soft skills of interaction and communication have been lost,” explains founder of wellbeing app MindKite and podcast host Jamie Kerr. Natalie adds: “We’re also seeing news updates 24/7, hearing horror stories, watching drama after drama unfold and it seems to be never ending. Huge spikes in Covid cases, horrific hospital numbers and rising deaths are being fed to us every day, all day, week by week so it's no surprise that this is having an impact. We can focus on the bad, imagine the worst and as thoughts go round and round, we end up feeling anxious and not wanting to put ourselves in danger.”
Is anxiety a rational thing or not?
The problem with anxiety, the experts say, is that it’s very often detached from reality, which only gives it fuel to develop vicious circles that sufferers find it difficult to escape from. “Anxiety is a completely irrational act and is completely fabricated by the mind thinking of possible scenarios and outcomes that are highly unlikely ever to happen,” says Jamie. According to Jo, it often stems from real worries or concerns, but then often spirals out of control. “It can begin with real worries or problems but can then be taken to the extreme. But it can also be completely irrational, the fear we experience could be about something so unrealistic that it would never happen.”
Can you share some ways to manage social anxiety?
First and foremost, says Jamie, it’s important to learn what anxiety is, understand why and how it happens and the meaning of it in relation to your life. “When you understand something, you can much more easily control the outcome,” he explains. “Remember to go at your own pace; there will be so many opportunities for social events over the next few months, but you don’t have to say ‘yes’ to every single one of them. Instead, understand and be clear of your own limitations and set clear boundaries for what you will and won’t accept.”
It’s also really important to control the environment you’ll be in as you ease yourself back into socialising. “Instead of meeting at a busy bar like everyone else, stick to safer options like meet ups in the park or at home so you’re in your own ‘safe space’ while you get comfortable with socialising again,” adds Jamie.
“While you don't need to come off social media altogether, try taking triggering apps off your phone and really bringing down your screen time,” suggests Natalie. “You might not think that scrolling is adding to your anxiety, but it can really rev things up and leave you feeling less than great. Keeping a journal that helps you put your fears and feelings in one place can be a great way to start looking at what is really going on for you. From your fears and worries, to good things that are happening in your life, journaling helps get things out of your head and onto a page.”
“Get some help and support,” adds Natalie. “No one is going to judge you because you are finding life hard and social anxiety is playing a part in this. Your GP, a friend, family member or even your boss are all sources of support, so be brave enough to ask for help and things will get easier. It’s not for everyone, but meditation can really help with anxiety, as can exercise. Even a walk, short jog or a swim in the sea can help boost your feel-good hormones and allow you to relax so the anxiety can loosen its grip, even for a little while.”
What would you say to people who are feeling anxious right now?
“My key piece of advice would be to get to the root cause of it all,” suggest Jo. “Something has caused that anxiety in the first place, usually we have picked up a belief in our past that has now been triggered and is causing that anxiety to be there. Dealing with that original belief will mean pulling the weed out by the root. No trigger, no anxiety or at least very much lessened anxiety as we remember that anxiety is a necessary emotion, a valid emotion with a job to do just like all our other emotions, it just doesn't need to be a constant, or even frequent, companion.”
Jamie suggests a practical exercise: “Close your eyes and imagine a time that you didn’t have anxiety – think of a happy time and attach yourself to the emotion and feeling of that time. Or close your eyes and vision a future goal – happy without anxiety, and really focus until you can feel yourself there emotionally and physically. Do this until the feelings of anxiety pass and please repeat this over and over again, any time you feel the signs of anxiety creeping up on you. The more you do this, the more the brain will start to adjust its behaviour to this.”
“Also, be kind to yourself,” says Natalie. “If we go back to January 2020, many people were toasting a new decade that was full of promise and hope. Three months later we were in a lockdown and time seems to have stood still. If you can't work this out alone, please talk to someone. You might not want to but dealing with this alone and in silence is going to make it harder and those who care will want you to share what's going on and help you move forwards.”
DISCLAIMER: If you are seriously concerned about your mental health, chat to your GP. They will be able to offer personalised advice on how to cope or when to seek help from a professional therapist.