There’s social anxiety and there’s social anxiety. Going out on a date or giving a presentation at work can give rise to feeling nervous and a little anxious. That is a pretty regular reaction to have in those types of scenarios and you just get on with it. Trying on the fourth outfit in the mirror and working yourself up into a frenzy as you check your hair for the tenth time before going out on a first date is nothing unusual. So, what’s social anxiety disorder? Well, it’s not the type of mild anxiety I just mentioned in those two scenarios.
READING TIME: 12 Mins. Or JUMP AND SKIM:
Referred to for short as SAD, it truly is a sad thing as people that suffer from it will have excessive fear and feel highly self-conscious in everyday social situations. They typically avoid social situations completely and miss out on life experiences. It is easy to see why this is sometimes referred to as the “illness of lost opportunities”.
Social anxiety disorder or social anxiety stops you from functioning in typical or even trivial activities with other people. The types of activities that people who do not have SAD wouldn’t even bat an eyelid about. The fear of being embarrassed in a social situation may stop the person from following through with the event or meeting. This can then affect both their personal and work. Minor tasks and pursuits become highly stressful and the triggers for these will depend on the individual.
The “social” part of SAD is misleading as it doesn’t just stop you functioning socially. It can affect family and all aspects of life. It is more a case of not wanting to be disapproved of. A person with social phobia (yet another name for it) has a fear that they may be criticized, judged or rejected.
This disorder can sometimes be left unnoticed and put down as the person being extremely shy. It’s funny (not funny haha) but when I was younger my school reports would have low marks and say things like “she has the potential but is painfully shy”. And that was how it was labeled back then, people didn’t talk about SAD. In fact, when I think or write about those days I do still allude to myself as having been very shy.
Back then, did I have acute shyness or social anxiety? Keep reading to find out. I’m not a professional health care provider. My goal here is to share my experience of shyness and anxiety to give you a real-life story that some of you may relate to. More importantly, I will tell you how I dealt with my shyness and anxiety. However, I will write a little about what the professionals say too. You will then have a relatable story and information that I have researched online so that you can make an informed decision on the best way forward for you.
How about that story now?
I don’t suffer from shyness and anxiety anymore. It’s been a long and winding road to building-up my self-esteem and overcoming shyness and anxiety. But little by little I did master my difficulties.
One of those difficulties was not being able to eat in front of other people. I was seventeen when my first boyfriend organized a dinner date for us at a small local bistro. I felt a mixture of joy and horror. The thought of my first dinner made me feel happy and grown-up. Eating in public AND in front of my boyfriend? The mere thought of it bought me out in a cold sweat.
When the day arrived, I spent the evening getting ready like the Tasmanian Devil character from Looney Tunes. I think I drove my Mum looney that evening as I kept freaking out the forth coming event.
I finally made it to the date. We sat facing each other chatting and eating. I was eating super slow, desperately trying to not dribble food down my chin or something worse. I eventually started to relax a bit. Then it happened. He asked me something and I answered back quickly, a piece of potato flew from my mouth across the table and landed on his cheek. Silence followed for a millisecond. Then, we both started laughing hysterically.
From that day forth I felt so much better about eating in front of people. I realized that it wasn’t a big deal and nothing awful happened just because I did something that I perceived as embarrassing. I understood at that point that I’d blown it all out of proportion. I don’t know where the fear of getting embarrassed came from but I knew I’d gotten over a big hurdle and that it was just a matter of time before I was 100% comfortable with eating in front of others.
I believe I had a mixture of shyness and social anxiety, depending on the circumstance or situation I was in. When it comes to people and their experiences and issues it’s never clear cut. I don’t label myself as having been shy or having SAD, it is not beneficial for me to get hung up on words. How I feel is my compass and resolving things as they arise is more important to me.
However, knowing how the professionals use words to distinguish between shyness and social anxiety could be useful if you are trying to work out where you’re at right now.
How Do You Know You Have Social Anxiety?
Due to many of the shared characteristics of shyness and social anxiety it can be difficult to know the difference. Whether it is you, a friend or your child that you are thinking about you may need to know if it is something more serious.
The three main indicators to distinguish between shyness and social anxiety are:
- The strength of the fear felt by a person
- The level or extent of avoidance a person will go to
- The amount of damage, harm or impairment it causes in a person’s life.
Take my eating in public as an example, I worried about it days before it happened. But I didn’t avoid it. Instead, I went and felt stressed, self-conscious, and anxious at the dinner. Eventually, I did manage to relax and enjoy the evening. Keeping in mind the three indicators above and what happened I would say that I suffered shyness with mild anxiety because:
- Yes, I felt fearful of being embarrassed and eating in front of other people
- No, I didn’t avoid the situation
- It didn’t cause any major issues with my personal life (apart from driving my Mum a little crazy)
Imagine though that I hadn’t gone or that I continued to avoid other similar situations as I couldn’t control my anxiety? That would have been SAD and sad.
The impact that the shyness or anxiety is having on your health and your life is what you need to consider when deciding to either work through this yourself or seek more professional guidance.
Can Social Anxiety Be Cured?
In my opinion, yes if you do something about it. Some people suffer social anxiety for fifteen to twenty years before they decide to seek advice. Usually because they don’t even realize they have a real issue and that it can be resolved. Some people, as they get older find their social anxiety dissipates. The key to resolving anxiety is to do something about it. What you do will depend on the level of anxiety and effect it has on your life as we discussed earlier.
For me, I cured my shyness, low self-esteem and anxiety over the years by:
- Life happening – the potato incident for example. As you experience life and/or get older things become clearer or your perception changes
- Knowing myself – exploring my inner workings and being self-aware of my thoughts, actions, and behaviors
- Educating myself – discovering ways to control my anxiety and learn new ways of living a better life
- Trying new things – getting comfortable with being uncomfortable by learning new things.
I write about the above in my different blog posts on this website but let me concentrate here on the main things that controlled my anxiety.
Top 3 Techniques For Anxiety
Remember, I recommend these techniques as they worked for me but do seek a health care professional if your symptoms are severe and the impact on your life is extreme. It matters not how you go about this but that you take action on making yourself feel better.
Mindfulness is bringing your awareness to your present moment. We often get stressed and feel anxious when our mind wanders to the past and future. We start to overthink about what could happen and what happened the last time, creating a story in our minds with negative consequences. It makes sense then to learn to start to become aware of our thoughts and begin to control that monkey mind through mindfulness.
When your mind wanders, bring it back to your present moment. Do this by focusing on your breath going in and out. Or drop into your body by feeling the sensations of heat and cold on your skin or the tingling in your hands and feet. Depending on where you are, look at a beautiful flower, listen to a person laughing, or a dog barking in the distance. You will come back to the moment. Your mind will go off again, bring it back. And so it goes. Be aware of where your mind is going and continually bring it back to the present moment.
Practice, practice, practice. Read my article on mindfulness for more in depth information. Know that it gets easier and easier.
- Deep Breathing
Deep breathing is very underrated and it is so beneficial to controlling anxiety and for feeling a great sense of well being. I realized that I rarely breathed deeply and was quite a shallow breather when I first started to do this. Take a big deep breath right now and blow out slowly, feels good, right? It’s super powerful in dealing with stress and anxiety.
There are a lot of methods if you search online but the most simplistic is this:
- Get comfortable, laying down, or sitting up. (Depending on your situation at the time)
- Breathe in through your nose and fill up your belly with air
- Place your hand on your belly and feel your belly rise
- Breathe out through your nose, feel your belly lower
- Take 3 or 4 deep breaths, slowly
- Imagine the stress and anxiety whooshing out with the out-breath.
Here’s one more method:
You can also try another method whereby you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds and then breathe out slowly through your mouth for 8 seconds.
Do deep breathing when you feel anxious but also think about doing it anyway. Taking-up deep breathing as a daily practice a couple of times a day for a few minutes. There are many benefits to deep breathing, not just to help with anxiety
Of course, the deep breathing mentioned above is a great way to relax but I like to separate it out as I want to highlight the importance of it.
The body reacts when we worry about situations and feel anxious by tensing the muscles. Continuing to tense the muscles can lead to headaches, sleeping problems, and upset stomachs. Therefore, relaxing is VERY important. Here are 2 great relaxation techniques:
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – I sometimes do this when I get in from work for just 10 minutes, it’s amazing. Tip: if you need to get on doing other things after relaxing then set an alarm as you can fall asleep unintentionally. Lay on your bed with your arms down your side and take 2 deep breaths. Then, focus on tensing a muscle for a few seconds and then releasing and relaxing it. Start with your feet and work your way up to your head. If you’re not able to lay then you can also do this sitting down.
- Creative Visualization – lay or sit down comfortably. Close your eyes and imagine a happy or peaceful place. One you know or one you don’t know. Use your senses. For a beach setting, smell the ocean air, feel the sand in your feet and hear the waves lapping on the shoreline. Feel your body relax and do for at least 10 minutes or more.
These 3 techniques are also part of what the professionals propose doing when controlling anxiety.
What The Professionals Say
The Mayo Clinic states that a doctor will give you a physical examination to check whether there is any medical condition or medication that is triggering your anxiety. They will discuss your symptoms and evaluate you using professional criteria. Depending on your results they will recommend:
- Talk Therapy (physiological counseling)
- Or a mixture of both.
There are also Social Anxiety tests that you can do online. They are not a substitute for a professional diagnosis but might be useful if you need to get clarity on what you are going through. Or they may provide information that you can use to talk about your symptoms more clearly if you decide to seek professional care. That said, here are 3 online tests:
Social Anxiety After Isolation
After leaving lockdown it is possible that some people will experience social anxiety, even if previously they didn’t. Take it easy and look after yourself! This is prime time for self-care.
Going from no social appointments and events to many is not necessary. Step into your new found calendar of future appointments and dates slowly. There’s no hurry and you will find by taking it easy anxiety is less likely to escalate or not even arise at all.
- Take it SLOW
- My 3 Techniques – mindfulness – deep breathing – relaxation
Know that you can beat your shyness or social anxiety disorder. Please don’t leave it for years unresolved and suffer in silence. Seek help from a professional or use the tools I have shown you to move forward.
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Here’s to living an anxiety free life!
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