Do some of the points below seem familiar?
- Do you feel anxious or self conscious during social situations (e.g. parties; eating in public; or one to one conversations)?
- Do you find it hard to participate in the things you want to because of your shyness?
- Do you tend to avoid speaking to people when you can?
- Do you worry that people think badly of you in social settings?
- Do you worry that you have nothing interesting to contribute to conversations?
- Do you worry that you are the centre of attention and everyone can see how anxious you are?
If the answer to any of these questions is 'yes,' you may be experiencing symptoms of social anxiety and you may find this workbook helpful.
Do I have symptoms of social anxiety?
If you are socially anxious, it is likely that you will experience some of the symptoms described below.
Anxious / on edge
Vulnerable / under the spotlight
Self conscious / out of place
Face goes red (blushes)
Butterflies in stomach / stomach churns
Voice goes shaky / body trembles
Dizzy / light headed
I have nothing interesting to say, I'm boring
Everyone is staring at me
People can tell how anxious I am
I'll stammer / I'll blush
I mustn't look anxious
I look and sound stupid
You avoid social situations
You make a quick exit from social situations
You stay in the background or hide away
You stay quiet to not make a fool of yourself
You always take a friend with you
You drink alcohol for courage beforehand
If you identify with some of the above you may be experiencing symptoms of social anxiety. However don't be alarmed, this is very common and there are things you can do to help.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is the term used to describe a high level of shyness. Of course everyone feels shy or anxious in certain social environments, but for some people it can be a little more extreme. When this is the case it has a very debilitating affect on their lives and stops them doing the things they would like to. For example it may affect their confidence to go to college or work and impact on their confidence to make friends and enjoy their hobbies.
Situations that people often experience social anxiety in include:
- Public speaking
- Talking to authority figures
- Talking to a group of people or an individual
- Eating in public
- Any performance based situations
When in such situations, people can often experience many uncomfortable physical symptoms of anxiety.
- Butterflies in their stomach
- A rapid heart beat
They often worry that others will notice these symptoms and judge them negatively as a result.
Socially anxious people often feel under the spotlight and believe that everyone is thinking badly of them. They often hold beliefs that they are no good socially, are boring, and that they have nothing interesting to contribute. After social events, they tend to pick out parts that they believe went poorly and 'beat themselves up' over them.
To cope with social anxiety, people tend to avoid social situations if possible (e.g. pubs, canteens, queues etc). If they can't avoid them, they tend to try and stay in the background and attract as little attention to themselves as possible (e.g. say very little).
What causes social anxiety?
One theory suggests that we develop social anxiety because of our past experiences. For example, if an infant touched an oven door, the pain from this experience would quickly teach them that oven doors are dangerous and should be avoided in the future. Similarly, it may be that social situations which once posed us no fear were influenced in a similar way.
For example, if someone felt embarrassed or humiliated in a previous social situation (e.g. when talking to a small group of people), they may worry that similar situations will go the same way in the future. As a result they begin to fear and avoid them.
Another theory suggests that some people have a thinking style that lends itself to developing social anxiety. For example, socially anxious people are more likely to predict that they will perform poorly in social situations. They also tend to think that everyone is paying close attention to them and scrutinising what they are doing/saying. Socially anxious people also tend to hold negative beliefs about their ability in social situations.
For example, they may believe they are boring or have nothing interesting to contribute. Of course, thinking in these ways can lead to high levels of social anxiety.
It is also possible that people develop social anxiety because of evolutionary factors. To understand this, it is worth considering that humans are generally a sociable species who tend to thrive in the company of others. Because of this, it makes sense that people prefer to avoid upsetting others and ultimately being rejected. It therefore seems plausible that socially anxious people are simply slightly over sensitive to being negatively evaluated due to the disadvantages this brings. This could explain why socially anxious people go out of their way not to offend others.
It has also been suggested that social anxiety has familial ties. In other words, if someone in your immediate family is socially anxious, there is a higher chance that you will have similar personality traits. It is therefore thought that our genetic make up plays a role in the levels of social anxiety we experience.
In reality it is likely that a combination of these factors play a role in the development of social anxiety. However, in some ways it is less important to know what causes social anxiety and more important to know what stops us overcoming it.
What prevents us overcoming social anxiety?
People's unhelpful thoughts and predictions make it more difficult for them to overcome their social anxiety. As discussed earlier, socially anxious people often hold unhelpful thoughts about themselves and their ability in social situations (e.g. I'm dull; I'm weird). This of course lowers their confidence and makes it harder to become involved in social situations. This, in turn, means they rarely get the chance to test out their social skills and prove they can interact well.
Unhelpful thoughts also typically play a damaging role just prior to people entering social environments as they predict they will perform poorly (e.g. I'll have nothing to say). Similarly, unhelpful thoughts influence people during social situations (e.g. I'm making a fool of myself), as they assume they are not coming across well.
To make matters worse, after social situations, people often analyse their performance and assume they have performed poorly. When considering these factors, it is easy to see how unhelpful thoughts stop people overcoming their social anxiety.
As mentioned earlier, socially anxious people tend avoid social contact whenever possible. If they cannot avoid it, they tend to try and escape it as quickly as possible. Although this is a very understandable way of coping with social anxiety, it is actually one of the main reasons that people find it hard to overcome.
This is because by avoiding social situations, people stop themselves having positive experiences that could disprove some of their unhelpful thoughts. Furthermore, the longer someone avoids a social situation, the more daunting it becomes and it is increasingly difficult to face.
Using 'Safety Behaviours':
Often, the only time that socially anxious people feel comfortable in social settings, is when they use what is known as 'safety behaviour'. Examples of 'safety behaviours' include: trying to stay in the background on social occasions; remaining quiet during group conversations; sticking closely besides those they know well; avoiding eye contact or drinking alcohol for extra courage.
Basically, a 'safety behaviour' is anything people do to try and make it easier to cope in social situations.
Although such safety behaviours help people feel slightly better at the time, they are actually unhelpful strategies in the longer term. This is because, like avoidance, 'safety behaviours' stop people from having the opportunity to prove that they can cope well, without putting such precautions into place. Instead 'safety behaviours' allow people to put their successes down to other factors (e.g. "I only achieved that because my friend was with me").
Similarly, by remaining quiet during conversations, they never have the opportunity to show that they would have coped well had they became more involved. As a result, people's confidence remains low and their social anxiety remains.
A final point worth noting is that 'safety behaviours' can result in what is known as self fulfilling prophecies. For example, by staying quiet in social situations, people may come across as 'distant' and others may respond by making less of an effort. As a result, their beliefs that they can't mix well remain in place.
Increased Self Focus:
People who are socially anxious often spend a lot of time concentrating on their own bodily sensations during social interactions. Unfortunately, this too plays a part in keeping social anxiety going. For example, people often spend time trying to judge whether they are sweating, stammering, shaking or blushing during social situations.
Although they do so in the hope of being reassured that they are not noticeably anxious, this strategy actually just makes things much worse. This is because people tend to overestimate how visible their anxiety is and this of course makes them feel even more self conscious.
Also, by focusing on themselves, it means that they are not fully focusing on the conversations going on around them. This makes it more difficult to join in properly and strengthens their beliefs that they are no good in such situations.
It is likely that a combination of these factors play a role in ensuring people's social anxiety continues.