People with social anxiety are constantly worried about being judged or criticised by others.
As a result, everyday social activities create a feeling of dread in these individuals, and they may have difficulty with public speaking, eating or drinking in public, as well as interacting with people at social events.
What Social Anxiety Feels Like
Usually a person with social anxiety will overestimate the extent that others are paying attention to them, which is known as the ‘spotlight effect’. Studies have consistently shown that people think others are watching them or thinking about them more than they actually are. In reality, most people are too caught up in being the centre of their own world, to be noticing everyone else!
People with social anxiety also tend to overestimate the negative evaluations made by others, assuming that people are thinking the worst about them.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
Studies indicate that some people are born with a genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders. It has also been suggested that people with social anxiety have a more reactive nervous system making them prone to heightened emotions.
In addition, those with social anxiety may have had negative experiences in childhood, where social situations resulted in high anxiety levels. This may have led them to avoid particular social events, and a pattern of avoidance was created. This pattern can be hard to break, and without treatment may persist across the lifespan.
People who are sensitive to what others think of them and like to ‘make a good impression’ on others, are also more inclined to suffer from social anxiety.
The Pattern of Avoidance
Most people with social anxiety will be fearful of social events and places where they fear they may become overwhelmed.
This often leads to the person avoiding those situations. However, in the long run the practice of avoidance only strengthens their anxiety, and reinforces their belief that they can’t cope.
Therefore, avoidance is a key concept in helping us to understand the cycle of anxiety.
For example, a person at a large party may leave early after experiencing symptoms of panic. This works in the short-term, as their immediate anxiety reduces. Then, the belief of ‘the only way I can cope with social situations is to avoid them’ becomes internalised.
When a similar situation comes up again, anxiety will rise quickly, leading the person to avoid the situation again to alleviate their anxious symptoms. And so the cycle is strengthened again.
Avoiding a situation when feeling anxious may result in the short-term reduction in anxiety, however this anxiety can generalise to many similar situations and they may start avoiding more and more.
Anxiety is therefore much worse in the long run and may start impacting on the person’s daily functioning. Avoidance means that the sufferer is prevented from finding out that there is no real danger, and that they would have coped after all.
Treatment for Social Anxiety and Avoidance
A psychologist can help you to overcome social anxiety and avoidance. There are several steps in the treatment of social anxiety, utilising evidence-based techniques from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Each step should be completed in sequence before moving on to the next step.
Step 1 – Learn to reduce symptoms of anxiety through the use of controlled breathing, relaxation exercises (such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, cue relaxation) and distraction techniques.
Step 2 – Identify and challenge distorted thinking patterns and negative core beliefs.
Step 3 – Gradual exposure to social activities through the use of a ‘fear hierarchy.’ By identifying situations which you avoid, and gradually exposing yourself to them repeatedly, you can reduce the anxiety that has become associated with these experiences. It is important to do this in a series of steps starting with easier steps and gradually becoming harder, so you can build up your confidence without becoming overwhelmed. When you do confront the avoided situations, you will use relaxation techniques to control anxiety symptoms.
Step 4 – Build self-confidence through assertiveness skills training, and identify and utilise personal strengths.
If you are tired of living with social anxiety and avoidance, it’s time to see a psychologist and get some help.
Author: Tegan Gonczar, BA (Hons), Grad Dip Ed (Secondary).
Tegan Gonczar is a Brisbane psychologist with experience in providing psychological counselling to children, adolescents and adults; she has a passion for working with people of all ages, to help them overcome obstacles, learn effective ways of coping and lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Tegan Gonczar, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
- Australian Psychological Society. (2010). Evidence-based Psychological Interventions in the Treatment of Mental Disorders (3rd ed.).
- Gilovich, T., Kruger, J., & Medvec, V. H. (2001). The spotlight effect revisited: Overestimating the manifest variability of our actions and appearance. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, (38), 93–99.