What Is Social Anxiety And How Do We Manage It?

There are environments in which we may feel comfortable and peaceful like: a corner of our home, beside our loved ones, or somewhere we can be alone. One of our most fundamental needs is intimate relationships in which we feel accepted and supported. When we feel accepted, we can rest in the sense of knowing we will be free of judgment and our body can begin to relax. Well, how do you know if you are accepted and free from judgment? The answer to this question varies for everyone. While some of us may perceive a glance as a threat, some of us may find social environments threatening and our perceptions can stem from our childhood. If we experienced trauma in our childhood, or if we felt unsupported, made fun of, etc. we may carry a negative self-perception around with us. 

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What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, occurs when an individual believes that they will be judged, ridiculed, or excluded and can result in excessive worrying in social contexts. If you are running through worst case scenarios in your mind before, during, and after social experiences, if you feel yourself in a thought spiral about what others will think of you, and if you feel tense and anxious just reading this, you may be navigating social anxiety. If these feelings affect your daily routines, relationships, and other areas in your life, making you uncomfortable, you can begin to consider how you’re talking to yourself, recognize your scale of judgment, and start to implement strategies to relax.  

When you experience extreme social anxiety, everyone can appear as a potential threat, critic, judge, or perceived trigger. In fact, this experience is not inherent within us, as the belief that we will never receive approval and acceptance can be rooted in that which we did not receive in our childhood. Yet, no child deserves to be excluded or disapproved. The inability of your childhood environment to give you the support you needed does not make you “flawed” or “abnormal”. The approval of others is not the basis of a person’s existence or a reflection of someone’s character.

The impact of social anxiety on the body and mind.

It may become difficult for you to speak up and express your opinion in a meeting full of people or perhaps it’s become impossible to eat alone in the crowd, feeling threatened and like everyone’s eyes are upon you. The threat here is being judged, criticized, or disliked by others, appearing flawed and worthy of rejection. This fear of rejection can become so intense that anxiety spreads throughout your body and you may not know what to do. You get so worried that you’ll draw attention to yourself and your feelings through becoming flushed, trembling hands, or a stutter that the thought of someone noticing your anxiety manifesting prevents you from seeing what’s happening around you. The higher the social anxiety, the greater the perceived social threat.

If you are experiencing social anxiety, you may notice that beside feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness, you may have a hard time relaxing, truly resting. So, try to pay attention to your own thoughts and assumptions: could your belief that you will leave a negative impression on others prevent you from being yourself and finding a place of calm?

What strategies can help?

When the tension in your body increases, notice it, take a moment to sit with those thoughts running through your head. You cannot read other peoples’ minds, however you can notice your own thoughts and test their accuracy. It is unlikely that others around you are constantly watching your every move. Look around and observe them. What are they doing? What is their purpose? Are they there to judge and criticize you? Are these people truly threats?

What’s going on around you? Who’s there? What are you saying to yourself in that moment? How is your body reacting? Checking in with your own body can be very healthy and useful when it comes to better understanding yourself. That said, fixating on yourself excessively can reduce your openness toward others, at times making it difficult to communicate and socialize. Imagine that you were monitoring everything about yourself and had to sustain that effort through an entire meeting while still participating. That kind of focus can be exhausting and that’s why it’s important to look to the outside world with curiosity. 

Being able to accept yourself as you are is a big step forward. There is no other you in this world and you don’t have to be like others. You are an individual.  You are you. What someone else thinks of you doesn’t make you less valuable or less important and you don’t need to feel embarrassed for being your most authentic self. You are valid. 

As a child, a moment of embarrassment can become an experience that sticks with us throughout our lives. If this feeling is one you feel often and have trouble coping with you can seek support from a clinical psychologist. Intense emotions can keep cropping up again and again when we don’t work on them. Sometimes the solution is just to get in touch, to share your feelings. Have you ever tried sharing something you’re ashamed of with someone you’re not close to? Come on, you can take the first step today.

Altering your thoughts can help alter your mood, altering your mood can help you find calm. As you calm down, your body relaxes and you can feel freer and more at ease. Once you prepare yourself for the social environment and take baby steps in the setting that worries you the least, you then have the chance to test whether the catastrophic scenarios are true possibilities.

Did the scenarios you were afraid of come true? Can you be less critical of yourself? Can you accept yourself as you are? Try to stay in the present moment and ask yourself: Are the people around me really dangerous? Are they too hard to handle? Along with identifying the possibilities around you for discomfort, take a look at the positive. Do people engage in positive, kind behaviors? Maybe there are people around you who smile at you and seek out genuine conversation. Being neutral can be difficult at first, but the more you experience finding even ground, the easier it will be to manage your anxiety. Try to see the conditions as a whole, filled with both pros and cons.

Meditate. Meditation and being in the moment are known to help alleviate some anxiety. Getting to know your body, observing in which situations your anxiety increases uses breathing techniques to relax your muscles will also help you manage your anxiety. Before stepping into any meeting, date, party, or social environment, make sure you check in with your body and try to find a place of calm. In this way, you can grasp the thoughts passing through your mind more easily and let your body release you from any negative thought spirals. The more neutral and unbiased you are in your thoughts, the more you will be able to distinguish a real threat from a perceived one. 

When can you seek a psychologist?

If you are finding that negative thoughts come to your mind in a social setting, you focus too much on the changes in your body and how it’s perceived, if you do not feel comfortable when entering crowded environments, or want to escape or avoid any social sphere, then getting psychological support can be a great step in terms of managing your anxiety. It is quite possible to worry less by working on the content of your negative thoughts, acquiring new perspectives and entering social situations little by little. Remember that you are special for being you and someone else’s opinion of you is not your reality. Your own thoughts are your own reality. Be gentle, understanding, and compassionate with yourself.

Translator Ebru Peközer

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