Stage fright: we’ve all been there. Life has its fair share of events that can give even the most confident people the jitters. Giving a presentation at work or grabbing coffee with someone you don’t know very well can be nerve-wracking, to say the least.
We’ve all had sweaty palms and a pit in our stomach the size of Texas. But there's a difference between feeling shy and dealing with something more serious.
“We all have that nervousness around certain social interactions or performances sometimes,” said Nelani Ratnalingam, Therapist at HealthOne. “But with social anxiety disorder, those things are experienced for at least six months. That’s the differentiating factor.”
A large part of living an inspired life is having optimal social well-being. If you or someone you know experiences ongoing feelings of social anxiety, it’s important to learn the facts. We spoke with Nelani to learn more about social anxiety disorder and the best ways to overcome it.
What is social anxiety disorder?
There’s a difference between feeling socially anxious and having a disorder. As Nelani said, the main factor is time. A person with a social anxiety disorder will experience symptoms for at least six months.
“It’s an excessive fear of interactions with others in a variety of social interactions,” she noted. “And a worry that they’ll be scrutinized by others.”
It can impair a person’s functioning in daily activities. That includes things like going to school or work. It can significantly interfere with relationships and their life overall.
Symptoms of social anxiety disorder
There are cognitive, physical, and behavioural symptoms to look out for. A person with a social anxiety disorder may think negatively about themselves. These thoughts can often be scrutinizing. Examples include “I’ll look stupid and anxious if I do this,” or “People will think I’m weird.”
She also mentioned that the physical symptoms can overlap with general anxiety. “That includes blushing, sweating, dry mouth, rapid heartbeat, trembling, and shaking,” she explained. Other examples include tightness in the chest, dizziness, stumbling speech, muscle pain and tension, slow thinking, or an inability to concentrate.
How can you tell if someone has a social anxiety disorder?
Acknowledging your own symptoms is one thing. In some cases, you may notice them in others as well. Behavioural symptoms are another indication that you or someone you know could be struggling with social anxiety disorder.
According to Nelani, one of the biggest signs is avoidance. A person might avoid going to social gatherings. They might avoid public speaking and eye contact, or be submissive in conversations.
Check-in with friends and family. Pay attention to changes in behaviour. If someone has avoided multiple social interactions in a row, touch base and ask how they’re doing. Having an open dialogue is one of the best ways to offer support.
What triggers social anxiety disorder?
People with a social anxiety disorder may be triggered by different things. Nelani shared some common examples that may cause or exacerbate a person’s symptoms.
“Meeting new people, making conversation, public speaking, any type of performance or being the center of attention, and being criticized are all examples,” she said. Triggers could also include going on a date, eating or drinking in public, making a phone call, asking for assistance at a restaurant, family reunions with distant relatives, or standing in line at the store.
If these situations evoke strong anxiety, there are ways to get help. While it can feel overwhelming to deal with a social anxiety disorder or support someone who has it, there is always hope. There are ways to get help.
What happens if a social anxiety disorder is left untreated?
Social anxiety disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders. When left untreated, it can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life.
It can interfere with work, life, relationships, and school. It can also be a hindrance to someone’s day-to-day experience.
“It can cause low self-esteem, trouble being assertive, negative self-talk, hypersensitivity to criticism, poor social skills, and isolation,” Nelani explained. “Also, low academic and employment achievement because of the impairment of functioning,” she added.
In some cases, a social anxiety disorder can lead to substance abuse and thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts. Getting professional help is one of the best ways to improve your quality of life.
How do I overcome social anxiety disorder?
People with social anxiety disorder can benefit from working with a mental health professional. A common approach many therapists use is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
CBT can help a person challenge their negative thoughts. It encourages small changes in behavior. CBT can also help them gain exposure to their fears and work towards positive change.
Along with CBT, Nelani uses a mindfulness approach in her practice. “It can help decrease anxiety and allow people to become more present with their thoughts,” she explains. All therapists have a unique lens. It's important to find one you feel comfortable speaking with.
Medication is not a one-size-fits-all solution. However, it can be a useful treatment for some. A therapist can assess your needs and help determine if medication could help. It can help reduce debilitating physical symptoms, such as panic attacks.
A strong support system.
Overcoming social anxiety disorder is difficult. Nelani emphasizes the importance of having a strong support system. There are support groups available, which can be very helpful. Being able to relate to others and work on small steps can be an effective complement to treatment.
Support can also come from loved ones. They can provide encouragement and help you attend more social interactions instead of avoiding them.
A healthy lifestyle.
Mental health is only one piece of the puzzle. The other lifestyle choices you make can impact your journey, too. Avoid caffeine, drugs, and alcohol. Make time for physical activity. Get good sleep, and stay hydrated. These are all very good for mental health and strength, noted Nelani.
Healthy habits are a form of self-care. But it’s also important to be kind to yourself. Individuals with social anxiety disorder can be critical of themselves. Positive self-talk can make the journey a lot easier.
Facing your fears.
The last thing you can do is face your fears. “Try to take those steps towards being more social,” Nelani suggested. “Even going into a coffee shop, where you can be around people and have that social stimulation, can be a great first step.”
Small progress is better than no progress. Each step you take can add up to a healthier, happier life. If you identify with any of the symptoms of social anxiety disorder or think you could benefit from visiting a therapist, our team is here to support you.
Nelani and our other therapists work virtually and in-person to help clients work through their mental health concerns. No problem is too big or too small. We provide a unique approach for every client based on their wants, needs, and goals.
HealthOne offers free Meet & Greet appointments. You can meet our therapists and learn about how therapy could play a role in your life. Click here to book a FREE Meet Greet.
One Life. Live Inspired.