Social Anxiety

Photo by Mitchell Hartley on Unsplash

Social Anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders.

It’s normal to feel nervous at social events, when presenting to groups or if you are planning on having a difficult conversation with somebody. 

However, social anxiety is different, it is when you become preoccupied with worries and thoughts around most social interactions.  You may notice that you ruminate on conversations you have with people, scanning for shameful or inappropriate comments.  You may make excuses for not attending certain occasions, you may have an internal narrative that you don’t like being around people and that you prefer your own company.

Some people are more introverted that others however, if you feel unworthy when in company of authority figures or people from different social groups, people that may be more highly educated than you or just people in general, this may be linked to how you see yourself rather than how others see you.

Social anxiety can really get in the way of life on many levels because other people, do not feel safe to you.  You feel you are being judged.

Symptoms of social anxiety:

  • Avoidance
  • Ruminating
  • Blushing
  • Shaking
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Tense
  • Feeling you are uninteresting.
  • Worried that you are looking anxious
  • Feelings of not fitting in
  • Do not act or look a certain way
  • Going blank
  • Avoiding starting a conversation or eye contact

All anxieties are fear-based, the part of the brain involved is the amygdala which is like our smoke alarm for threats.  It is involved in the release of chemicals cortisol and adrenaline into our bloodstream.  However, the amygdala is not able to distinguish between real life-threatening situations vs more everyday worries – it will fire off regardless when we feel fearful causing the fight and flight responses in our body making us want to run away.  Our heart rate will increase and pump more oxygen into the bloodstream for muscles and circulation, and because we are not in a position to run off the flight response, we get hot, tense and sweat or worst still panic.

This is a very basic explanation of the biological process that makes us feel uneasy however, it is often more helpful but more complex to look at why we feel this sense of inferiority in the first place.

There may have been a certain event or trigger or a phase in life that made you feel that you wanted to withdraw.  Although, normally feelings of inadequacy or self-consciousness develop from an earlier age.  As children or humans in general we need to be seen, heard and felt, we need nurturing and to be emotionally held particularly in childhood to be able to develop a regulated nervous system (the fight and flight centre). If we were criticised, if we had caregivers that did not have the capacity to show up due to mental illness, addictions or difficult life patterns, you may have had a parent who was just preoccupied and didn’t provide that consistent care to allow you to feel accepted and needed.

Alternatively, we may have been overprotected thus not developing sufficient experience to develop resilience to deal with social challenges.

Bullying is another life event that can leave us feeling ‘other than’ or different.  The effect of bullying can weave into our identity, and sometimes inhibit our connection with others.

I think it’s important to note that having feelings of inadequacy can cause us to blame ourselves and/or alternatively develop unconscious defense mechanism to create a belief that nobody can be trusted or “I don’t like people” or “people are bad”. The problem then gets reinforced as we blame ourselves or we blame others.  We then continue to seek safety, by not interacting and our world can become smaller.

There are many ways to overcome social anxiety one of which is to live with more awareness and appreciation of what has happened to you as opposed to what is wrong with you. This takes time and work.  Our own internal belief system and how it has developed (often inherited or placed upon us by others) needs to be challenged, and when we engage more mindfully with people and when we can be more aware of our beliefs and how they drive our biological reactions we may get to a place of more empathy and self-acceptance.