All of us have felt that familiar flutter of fear in some social situation. Whether it’s going on a blind date or walking into a big meeting with your boss, there are circumstances that are a little more challenging for anyone. But for some people, that anxiety can be overwhelming. It may extend to many areas of your life and become so overwhelming that you struggle to function at your best. In that case, what you may be dealing with is called social anxiety disorder.
That sounds serious, and it can certainly have a huge impact on people’s lives. But there is treatment available. Scientific research has shown it to be effective, and it can help you feel better quickly. Here’s what you need to know.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, social anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that’s characterized by “an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.” These fears don’t just feel awful, but they can also cause problems in your daily life, at school, at work, and in relationships.
People who struggle with this condition may be afraid in almost any situation where they have to interact with other people. Simple tasks like answering the phone or eating in front of other people can make them feel like they’re on display — and they’re the only ones who don’t know how to do it right. This anxiety can become so overwhelming that they withdraw from situations and relationships.
For other people, anxiety doesn’t affect most of their lives, but it becomes paralyzing in specific situations, such as performing or speaking in front of an audience. This can stop them from pursuing their career or artistic goals.
People with social anxiety disorder often worry excessively about what will happen in the future. They have negative assumptions about themselves and how other people see them. The anxiety can cause unpleasant physical symptoms, such as sweating, blushing, shaking, stomach pain, or a racing heart. For people who already feel on display, these symptoms often increase their anxiety, as they worry that people will notice.
Most people who struggle with social anxiety disorder first developed these problems when they were children. Some risk factors include a history of trauma, such as abuse or bullying, a family history of anxiety disorders, and experiencing other mental health problems, such as depression or substance use disorders. Research shows that roughly 7% of the population has a social anxiety disorder and that women are more likely than men to experience it than men. It typically does not go away without help.
When Does Social Anxiety Disorder Become a Problem?
Again, everyone feels anxious in some social situations. This is to be expected, and it’s generally something that comes and goes in people’s lives. But for some people, this fear becomes a defining factor in their lives. According to Anxiety Canada, here are some signs that social anxiety disorder has become more of a burden than you should have to carry alone.
At work or at school, having a hard time asking questions can keep you from performing at your best. You may turn down opportunities because you’re afraid to fail. Fear of making a mistake may cause you to miss deadlines. Anxiety can also rob you of enjoying what you do because you’re so afraid of doing it wrong.
Being too focused on saying or doing the wrong thing makes it difficult to maintain relationships. You may avoid contact with people, which causes friendships to dwindle. Even in established, stable relationships, it can make it hard to speak up for yourself. If you don’t feel safe enough to be honest with someone, you can’t have the most fulfilling relationship.
When people are anxious, they feel compelled to protect themselves. If you are afraid, it may cause you to cut out many of life’s pleasures. Getting together with friends, meeting new people, and trying new things all seem impossible. You may feel lonely, but unable to do anything about it. Life can also seem increasingly complicated, as you try to navigate daily tasks such as grocery shopping and going to the gym when you don’t feel safe.
There is Effective Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder.
First, let’s clarify one thing: we’ve talked a lot about the difference between “normal” anxiety and social anxiety disorder. But you don’t have to reach a certain threshold of distress before you can get help. Whether you’re coping with a pervasive, life-altering level of anxiety, or you just need some tools to help you feel more comfortable in certain situations, there is treatment available.
According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT, has been shown to be the most effective treatment for social anxiety disorder. This research-backed form of therapy can be used on its own or along with anxiety medications. What’s more, it can help you start feeling better more quickly than you might expect.
CBT helps patients deal with the thought patterns and habits that feed anxiety. The goal is to notice the beliefs that keep you stuck, and to choose new and healthier ones. It’s different from traditional talk therapy in that it’s goal-oriented, with many people seeing significant improvement in eight to 20 sessions. Rather than focusing on what happened to make you feel the way you do, CBT helps you make choices today that will help you feel better now.
Social anxiety disorder can feel like a prison, keeping you from living your life fully. But with CBT and the guidance of a skilled counsellor, you can escape that prison and find your place in the world.
If you often feel helpless in the face of anxiety, CBT can empower you to take back control of your life. If you’d like more information about social anxiety disorder or CBT, or to make an appointment, please contact us today.