What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is one of the most common forms of anxiety – according to NICE, it affects up to 12% of the UK population.
Social anxiety is a fear of interacting with others or being the centre of attention. Many people feel uncomfortable about attending a significant event or speaking publicly; social anxiety is more than just discomfort – it’s a real feeling of anxiety or fear.
Is social anxiety the same as shyness?
Social anxiety isn’t the same as shyness. However, many people will have shyness and social anxiety together, so separating them isn’t always possible.
Shyness is more a personality trait and surfaces in new situations – a shy person will usually be reserved at first. Still, their shyness fades as they become comfortable with a situation or people.
On the other hand, social anxiety is an intense fear of interacting with others that causes intense self-consciousness and worry. The person will often feel anxiety before, during and after an event.
It’s also possible to have social anxiety yet still come across to others as outgoing – many people can mask it very well. Shyness, however, tends to be relatively easy for others to spot.
Social anxiety can cause issues with work – for example, fear of doing presentations, attending meetings or collaborating with others socially, as the idea of mixing with others can be overwhelming.
I have had social anxiety myself, and I know how horrible it can be to struggle with this – but I also know it’s possible to overcome it with the right help!
What does social anxiety feel like?
There are usually physical sensations like sweating, sinking feeling in the stomach, shakiness and palpitations. In extreme cases, panic attacks can happen. These are accompanied by feelings of self conciousness, worry, and anxiety about how you are coming across to others.
After an event or meeting having thoughts like…
“What if I said or did something wrong.”
“Did my friends take offence to my joke?”
“Why am I so boring?”
“Everyone ignored me – nobody likes me.”
These aren’t just fleeting thoughts – they keep coming back – you might lie awake in bed analysing the events of the evening, trying to suppress the urge to check in with the person you imagine you have offended.
People with social anxiety aren’t antisocial – they may crave the company of others. However they find mixing with others very dificult. Their anxiety makes them fearful of social situations, and they stop attending and become isolated. Others manage to keep attending social events but constantly worry and dread mixing with others and what could happen.
Social anxiety is far more than feeling a bit nervous about speaking in public or meeting a new person – it’s a strong feeling of fear and can be debilitating.
How can CBT help with social anxiety?
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is a practical, solution-focused therapy beneficial for anxiety.
According to a 2014 study in the Lancet, “CBT should be regarded as the best intervention for the treatment of social anxiety disorder”.
Here are some examples of how we might work together using CBT to overcome social anxiety.
Understanding thoughts and beliefs. Many of us have unhelpful thinking styles which hamper us in life. CBT helps you to identify and challenge those. For example, many people with social anxiety have a “personalisation” style where they take things too personally. For example, your neighbour might have been quiet because they were tired or unwell – not because you did something wrong. In CBT we aim to identify some of the unhelpful thinking styles you use – once you have this awareness you can spot yourself the ways your thinking makes you feel worse.
Challenging negative thoughts involves identifying the negative thoughts and checking out whether they are realistic or not. We then look at a more realistic and positive thought to replace the negative one. For example “I made such a show of myself – everyone will be talking about it for weeks”. Is that actually true? Perhaps you did something embarassing but chances are everyone has forgotten about it.
Challenging your comfort zone involves taking steps to push yourself out of your comfort zone (for example you might set a goal to talk to one new person) and observing the outcome – what thoughts and feelings arise? By gradually stepping out of your comfort zone, your confidence improves, and your anxiety reduces. Don’t worry this is done at your pace!
Learning coping strategies. Many coping strategies can help ease anxiety, and we can work on some that would be helpful for you. Some examples of coping strategies could be breathing techniques, meditation, and preparing in advance for important meetings or presentations. We work together to look at what you are struggling with and then work out strategies to help you to cope.
Building social skills. This can mean looking at what is happening when you interact with others and if this is contributing to your anxiety. For example when we feel anxious, we often have defensive body language or avoid eye contact. This is understandable, but it gives a message to others that we don’t want to interact with them. People might respond by not speaking to us so we come away from situations feeling left out, which can become a vicious cycle. A goal of therapy could be to work on having more open body language – for example not crossing arms or legs.
This work is all done at your pace and in an accepting way. Nobody is ever forced to do anything they don’t feel ready to.
As a guide, most people need 6-8 sessions of CBT. However, some people need more or less; you can pause or stop work anytime.
If you are ready to make a start you can book a session either face to face in Birkenhead, Wirral or over telephone or zoom.
Or if you have any questions click here to contact me