Dealing with social anxiety – Part 1

Social anxiety is often underestimated in how severe of a mental illness it is. People have assumed it is just the same as being shy and you can simply grow out of it. However you will find through my next series of blogs that it is far more of a deeper and complex issue.

Firstly lets evaluate what it means to have social anxiety. According to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic statistical manual for mental health) social anxiety is defined as: “A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating”. The themes and key words that stand out for me in this definition are:

  • Persistent fear– this indicates that the distressing thoughts are persistent and therefore have the potential to be overbearing.
  • Social or performance situations – this indicates that either a person can get triggered by only certain stressful events (e.g. board-meeting or presentation) or any situation which requires one to be social.
  • Unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny– this indicates that this anxiety is triggered through a fear of the unknown or fear of judgement.
  • Show anxiety symptoms– this indicates that the person feels stigma for having anxiety.
  • Embarrassing and humiliating (further emphasises fear of judgement).

As you can see, from the themes I have mentioned above this mental illness is a persistent force which can interfere in all or some circumstances of personal interactions. It is important to review the consequences of having social anxiety since this mental illness seems to create other issues, such as always having to wear a mask over your personality to please people. In some cases having social anxiety may lead to underlying feelings of loneliness caused from not being true to yourself.

On the surface it appears the person does not know how to relate to others, however it goes deeper than this. Because of bullying or emotional trauma, the person suffering from social anxiety may be suffering from a lack of self-worth and therefore feel they need to protect themselves from judgement, since this is all they expect to happen. We cannot rule out the possibility of this being linked with depression either as a side effect of it or as a cause. When an individual suffering from social anxiety is confronted with an opportunity to socialise, that person may nervously think about it for weeks prior to the event.

Due to the fact that we inherit our way of socialising from our parents, wherever there is an attachment style between the child and their parents which inhibits the child’s expression; this is the first cause of social anxiety. For example, if your father was domineering over you in your early childhood years, you tend to grow accustomed to being quiet, and if you were shamed for speaking up you may replay this behaviour with people outside your family too. In short, the person suffering from social anxiety is conditioned to fear speaking out, since they expect there to be a negative consequence (disapproval and judgement).

In other cases, an individual could develop social anxiety from a specific public social event. For example, if you embarrass yourself in public you can internalise the ridicule you receive from others. Then other people’s judgements go through to your subconscious and then you start to believe what was said about you on that day. Then when another social situation occurs which is similar, you may end up closing yourself from other people and experiencing anxiety symptoms.

Regardless of how social anxiety manifests, there is a subtle belief that is created in the subconscious mind: “If I express myself I will be shamed for it”. It is this belief that needs to be worked on and disproven. Every person will eventually find their own method to disprove this belief with time. It is no easy task to recover from social anxiety, it requires consistent time and effort. In the next blog, we shall discuss how to recover from social anxiety and what help is available.