Have you ever made plans with friends, only to cancel at the last minute? Or had something to say in a lecture or group meeting, but never share your thoughts? If you find yourself regularly feeling like this, you may be experiencing social anxiety.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is the fear of being judged by others in a social situation, causing you to feel extremely self-conscious and overthink your actions. It often stems from a shameful or embarrassing experience from your past.
This experience could be something like a job interview that didn’t go well, or it might be something as simple as tripping up the stairs in high school.If you have social anxiety, you might find you focus on your flaws and struggle to see positive attributes in yourself. These misperceptions about yourself shape the way you interact with others and might hold you back from having normal social interactions.
It's also very common to have ‘two sides’ of your personality determined by the company you keep. For example, you may be perceived as outgoing around your partner or best friend, but reserved and timid with colleagues and new acquaintances.
While many think social anxiety can only be experienced in group situations with new people, Gaston Antezana Ortiz, Clinic Director of Caladenia Counselling, says this isn't necessarily the case.
"Some people can experience social anxiety with close family, friends, and even partners. The feeling can be so overwhelming and stressful that it can cause you to avoid social interactions all together, often resulting in social isolation and relationship problems."
What does social anxiety feel like?
When you experience anxiety, your fight, flight or freeze response comes into play. This response has evolved in humans as a reaction to danger.
While it was integral to the survival of our caveman ancestors confronting life-threatening situations like an approaching lion/snake/water buffalo, with less threats in the modern world, sometimes our brains are triggered to respond in the same way to situations that aren't actually dangerous.
Your body's response to danger (real or perceived) causes your frontal lobe (the front part of your brain which acts like a control panel for personality, emotion and communication) to stop working and your survival instincts to kick in. The sudden release of adrenaline can cause symptoms such as an increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, mind blanks and heavy breathing.
Ever been asked a tricky question in an interview to find your mind is completely blank? Confronted by a friend about a problem and got the urge to just run away? Or, experienced sheer panic when someone hasn't replied to a text within thirty seconds and left you on read?
Someone trying to hide social anxiousness may try to divert the feeling by talking a lot, looking around, avoiding eye contact, or in some cases, relying on stimulants and depressants to numb the feeling (also known as drinking too much at the beginning of a night out to ease nerves).
Tools to help you copeBy default, we fight the feelings we don’t want to experience, but overcoming social anxiety starts with understanding your symptoms will worsen when you’re fighting it, and ease when you face it. Accepting the feeling is the first step to improvement, followed by allowing yourself to make mistakes and be open to judgement.
"If you’re waiting for others to accept you, that is something that is not in your control – what is in your control is being able to accept yourself," says Caladenia Counselling student Sohail Sultan.
Regularly immersing yourself in nature and getting in touch with your breathing can help to ease anxiety. Breathing and mindfulness exercises can help you gain control of your body, even if you feel like you can’t control your mind.
If you're starting to feel anxious, distracting yourself from the situation by relying on one of your five senses can help. Using either sight, smell, sound, taste or touch can bring you back into the moment and trick your brain into thinking there is no immediate threat.
Want to talk to someone?
If you feel like you're withdrawing from uni, friends or family because of social anxiety, it might be time to speak to someone. Seeking professional counselling can help you work through feelings of anxiety and develop customised coping strategies.
Caladenia Counselling at Murdoch University offers accessible and affordable counselling services to students and the wider community. You'll be seen by postgraduate students enrolled in the Master of Counselling who are supervised by experienced and qualified counselling staff. Several of our counsellors have fluency in non-English languages to make you feel more comfortable.