Social anxiety can present itself in many forms and to various degrees. Some people have issues with public speaking or stage fright; others are shy in certain situations or experience performance anxiety when the stakes are high. However, according to the DSM IV, for 10 to 20% of the population, social anxiety has much more serious impact on every-day functioning.
Social anxiety can be a debilitating fear for anyone from the quiet office worker to big-name celebrities. Kim Basinger, for example, admitted to spending months on end locked away in her home. Stage actor Sir Laurence Olivier hid behind make-up and delved deep into his characters to distance himself from his anxiety. Even the seemingly unflappable Barbra Streisand supposedly became so stricken with stage fright that she forgot the words to one of her songs.
Social anxiety isn’t just freaking out when you have to do a presentation. It’s the sweaty palms, shaking, tensing up or full-out panic at the thought of having seemingly harmless social situations. In its extreme, social anxiety can become a phobia, in which a person completely withdraws from the social world and may even go as far as refusing to leave the safety and solitude of home. For someone who has a social anxiety, even just one-on-one conversations can be a nightmare.
Isolating only the sample with the highest anxiety scores on the Social Anxiety Test, Queendom’s gender comparisons reveal that while women with anxiety were more likely to be fearful of embarrassment (score of 82 for women, 78 for men, on a scale from 0 to 100) and to react with panic (score of 63 for women, 52 for men), men more readily admitted that their anxiety was excessive (score of 88 for women, 93 for men). Queendom’s analysis also reveals that:
- 51% have consulted a professional about feeling uneasy in public.
- 59% have difficulty making eye contact with people they don’t know.
- 62% said they become “paralyzed” and “speechless” when someone they don’t know starts a conversation with them.
- 81% admit that their fear of group activities causes problems in their relationships.
- 83% will go to great lengths to avoid social gatherings.
- 84% become tense even at casual get-togethers.
- 85% say that if they were attending a party that was a month away, they would already be worrying about the prospect of having to mingle with others.
- 89% tend to withdraw from people.
If you experience severe social anxiety to the point where you cannot go about your everyday life, it is recommended that you consult a professional who can help you develop a program tailored to your own needs to overcome it. For those who experience mild to moderate anxiety, here are some tips that could help alleviate some of the nervousness you may experience in social situations.
- Think objectively about the situations that worry you. Have you ever noticed the hands of a presenter shaking when he or she speaks in front of a group? It’s quite possible that the person was nervous, but it can be hard to see these small cues. It’s likely that no one will notice your anxiety, but if they do, they’ll probably be understanding.
- Develop an exposure program. To master a situation that causes you discomfort, break it down into small steps – then you can progress from the easy steps to more difficult ones. If, for example, you feel anxious about approaching a group of people in the cafeteria, set small goals for yourself that lead up to that behavior. First, say “Hi” to someone different in the hall before lunch each day. Then move on to making small talk about something in the news. You’ll be amazed at the progress you can make if you take it one step at a time.
- Practice make perfect. Scared about a big presentation you have to make? Why not ask one or two friends for an hour of their time to act as your audience in a role-playing scenario? This will help you become more familiar with the situation, easing the anxiety you’ll feel in the actual experience. You can go even further and have your friends ask questions, so you can practice handling that as well. Just make sure to choose friends who will take your situation seriously.
- Practice positive self-talk. Anxiety is often a vicious cycle and eliminating (or at least cutting down) the negative thoughts that start the chain is sometimes enough to get you out of the trap.
- Consider some lifestyle changes. Stimulants like caffeine and even nicotine can make feelings of anxiety all-the-more intense. Try to cut down on them if possible, and make sure that you get enough sleep every night.
- Distract yourself. Distracting yourself when you’re feeling nervous in a social situation can give your mind something else to focus on than just the anxiety at hand. For instance, what are the different sounds or smells going on around you? How many people are wearing the color blue? You can also play a simple yet surprisingly effective game to calm your nerves. For each letter of the alphabet, try to come up with a word or short phrase that is synonymous with calmness. Example: “All is well”, “Blissful”, “Composed”, “Docile”, “Easygoing”, “Fluid”, “Gentle”, etc. Soon enough, you’ll be so focused on trying to come up with words that you won’t be thinking about the anxiety-provoking situation anymore.
Do you have some goods tips to deal with social anxiety? Share your comments below!
Join me for next week’s discussion on self-monitoring!