Ana is embarrassed and anxious. Every year her high school class organises a dinner to get together and see how their lives are going. But every time she thinks about going to dinner with a group of friends, especially if they are from childhood and she hasn’t seen them in a while, she starts to feel very nervous and uncomfortable.
She tried to go to the first get-together but had trouble sleeping for a week. She thought about the moment when she would show up, and everyone would stare at her. She thought about what everyone would think of her, about the judgements they would make, and she saw herself unable to go to the meeting.
She imagined herself sitting in the chair with a red face, sweating, palpitating and out of breath. It had happened to her many times before. So, in the end, even though she wanted to see her friends, fear won the battle, and she stayed at home.
She felt calm and safe at home but sad because she didn’t understand why this was happening and didn’t know how to overcome it.
Ana’s symptoms are characteristic of social anxiety or social phobia. That is fear of social situations in which we may feel evaluated or embarrassed.
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What is social anxiety?
It is estimated that more or less 40% of the population suffers from anxiety. And between 3 and 13% suffer from fear of social situations.
Social anxiety is characterised by:
- Anticipatory anxiety at the thought of social situations.
- Intense fear of others’ evaluations, criticism and judgements.
- Low self-esteem.
- Recreation in the mind of embarrassing situations where we will be ridiculed and embarrassed.
- Sometimes the fear of reddening (erythrophobia) and fear of shaking.
- Avoidance of social gatherings or crowded places.
- Avoid talking to people they consider authoritative or power figures such as teachers or bosses.
- Sometimes they also develop a phobia of authoritarian figures in uniform.
- Difficulties may arise in relating to the opposite sex for fear of being disliked and embarrassed. This sometimes leads to problems in finding a partner and in sexual relationships.
- Avoidance of social situations or encounters where there is a risk of judgement or embarrassment.
The fear of being judged by others is characteristic of social anxiety. Faced with this incredible fear, the person suffering from anxiety prefers not to face social situations or suffer the terrible symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety is a survival mechanism. Although it has become the great evil of the 21st century, anxiety is indispensable for survival in nature. Faced with a situation of danger or threat, our body activates a life-saving protocol. It makes our heart beat faster; our blood circulates faster, our muscles are alert to flee or fight the danger. It gives us the physical tools to react to the threat quickly and effectively.
Anxiety symptoms create discomfort because our mind sees dangers and fears where it shouldn’t. This is what happens when we suffer from social anxiety.
Our mind sees every social situation as a threat. We are social beings, so we face a large number of moments that involve interacting with others every day. For someone with social phobia, life begins to seem like torture.
Job interviews, meetings with friends, dates, busy classes, parties with friends and acquaintances, and even the most intimate and harmless of social gatherings become impossible challenges to overcome without being paralysed by fear.
The problem: fear can become controlling.
If we let fear win over our ability to cope and our desire to overcome anxiety, we will soon become slaves to our fear of social situations. As a result, our life will become about avoiding everything that comes our way day after day, and we will become closed.
Staying in our comfort zone will only increase our anxiety. We think we are more comfortable, but in the safety zone, our fears dominate us, and our self-esteem becomes smaller. Eventually, we become so afraid that we cannot take on small challenges and feel closed in and desperate.
The good news is that social anxiety is not forever, it has a solution.
How does social anxiety manifest itself?
- Shortness of breath when we are in social situations or feel evaluated.
- Redness. Sometimes only on the face, and sometimes the redness also affects the upper chest, shoulders and arms. In addition, it may not be uniform and may appear in the form of unsightly red patches. Sometimes this situation causes the patient to become so self-conscious that they fear turning red or erythrophobia.
- Sweating of the hands and face.
- Trembling hands.
- Frequent urination.
- Gastrointestinal problems.
- Confusion, inability to make decisions, dificulty to concentrate in conversation, alienation and depersonalisation. Feeling of being outside the body and seeing everything from the outside.
- Muscle stiffness, contractures, pain in some areas such as the neck and shoulders due to adopting a defensive posture.
- Insomnia or hypersomnia. Sleeping too little or too much.
- Anticipatory anxiety.
On a cognitive level, we may be assailed by negative thoughts such as that we will not cope successfully in a particular social situation or that everyone else will know how to do it well except us.
The average age at which social anxiety manifests itself is around fifteen in adolescence. Not everyone is equally sensitive to stress, and adolescence is the stage when we begin to build our social relationships and our personality. Relationships with those around us are indispensable for forming our character. Read more about separation anxiety here.
At this stage, the person with social anxiety feels a lot of discomfort and does not know how to channel it. As a result, they usually say nothing and suffer in silence.
Years later, when they can no longer bear it or the social phobia acts as a brake on their life, preventing them from achieving the goals they had set for themselves, the most effective thing is for people with social phobia to decide to go to a specialist and ask for help.
A great fear of making decisions also characterises social anxiety, so if you have a social phobia, it may take you a long time before you decide to consult a therapist about your problem. Perhaps beforehand, you will look for other opinions on the Internet and even consult forums where other people with the same symptoms as you talk about how they overcame it. Don’t worry. The first step is to recognise that there is a problem and to want to solve it. The good news is that you do not have to experience social anxiety forever.
Ask for help and gradually overcome anxiety.
Asking for help is the first step to start a new life without fear, so don’t let fear control your life. Instead, take control of your present and future, leaving the past behind.
1. Talk about what is happening to you
It will be difficult at first because you have probably never talked about your problem with social relationships. But talking about it will set you free and help you start overcoming it. If you can and feel ready, talk to someone close to you and share your fears and concerns. The therapeutic effect of a conversation with someone close to you about troubling you is fantastic.
2. Slowly but surely
Don’t expect the fear and anxiety to disappear overnight, and deal with the social situations that frighten you little by little. Doing it all at once will only make you more anxious. So be patient. With the help and guidance of a professional, you will gradually cope with social situations and gain self-confidence. And that will make you more self-confident and more vital to achieving your new goals.
3. Join a social activity
Find a physical activity that also involves interacting with other people. For example, the sport will help reduce your anxiety and, if it is also a social activity such as dancing, you will gradually gain confidence.
Yes, it may seem obvious and simple, but learning to breathe will change your life. Practice abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing exercises to regain calm and balance. Learn to breathe to control anxiety and the fear it produces. Meditation can also be a great ally to work on negative thoughts and turn them into positive ones.
Once you have identified the problem and decide to ask for help, you will gradually leave your comfort zone to feel calm again and enjoy the shared moments. Here you can take an anxiety test to reflect on your current situation.
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