Have you ever felt like everybody is looking at you, judging every single thing you do and you feel terribly embarrassed? If so, you might be suffering from social anxiety, whose psychopathological forms are called social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. But no need to worry, you are not the only one. According to the Kim Foundation, more than 40 million Americans aged between 18 years and older suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. Scientists believe that most people who suffer from social anxiety are not even aware of it. Due to the under-rated nature of the social anxiety, many people go on with their lives unaware that there is a diagnosis for their uncomfortable feelings when dealing with social situations.
The easy answer would be anything that has to do with social interactions. However, in order to fully understand the complicated nature of this disorder, it is important to dig deep into the roots of the problem. First of all, blame it on your genes. According to recent scientific discoveries, anxiety can be inherited. Therefore, if one of your close family members has been diagnosed with any type of anxiety, chances are you might be a good candidate yourself. Moreover, causes can be related to the way the nervous system works. For example, certain areas of the brain are much more active in people who suffer from and have been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder. However, scientists are still unsure about the actual percentage of impact that these areas play in triggering an attack. Several diseases, such as hypothyroidism, that can be cause of a hormonal imbalance which may also result in social anxiety.
One thing that has been proven to be a major cause of social anxiety disorder is low self-esteem. The way we perceive ourselves and the way other people perceive us play a major part in our growing up process. At the young age of 8 years old, we are already capable of fully understanding, and therefore being profoundly affected by, judgments made by other people regarding our personality and external looks. Hence, we can become shy, insecure and in worse cases victims of bullies. These feelings increase during puberty and reach their highest point during our teenage years. External factors such as peer relations, family problems, and school-related issues can only worsen our self-esteem, which in turn will make us feel inadequate in any social situation like being part of a team, going to parties, giving presentations in class in front of other class mates, asking somebody out on a date and so on. If the problem has not been taken care of during adolescence, it is very common that we might carry this disorder well through our adulthood, which can only intensify our fears and reactions to social interactions.
Being shy alone does not make you a sufferer from social anxiety disorder. Even if shyness is one of the major symptoms, it needs to be accompanied by many others for you to even be considered at risk. The main problem that social anxiety causes is that it prevents the sufferer from normally going on with his/her life. Therefore, if you blush when giving a public speech from time to time, but still manage to live your life without major distress, you most likely have nothing to worry about. On the other hand, if you find you experience more than one of the following physical symptoms when you are in a social situation, you might suffer from social anxiety disorder or social phobia.
Another way to find out whether you suffer from this type of disorder is to think about if you experience what doctors call anticipatory anxiety. This type of anxiety happens weeks before the actual public event takes place and the sufferer already feels nervous, anxious and worried about him/her participating in it. Main fears consist of:
Many people who suffer from social anxiety deal with the disorder by simply avoiding any public interaction. They prefer to stay at home, or always bring a friend or family member to prevent being alone at a social event, drinking alcohol before going out to give them courage to face their fear of being socially involved.
It is not impossible to prevent social anxiety attacks and maybe you will be surprised to find that you have the power to control the disorder yourself. Many people who experience attacks of social anxiety say that there is a voice in the back of their minds that tells them they will make a fool of themselves in a specific situation, that they are not worth the attention because they are boring and uninteresting to listen to and so on. This voice lowers even more their self-esteem and in turn provokes symptoms of social anxiety. Therefore, it is important to put that voice to rest. The first step is to recognize the negative thoughts and act against them by repeating to themselves the exact opposite: “I am worth listening to”; “I will not make a fool of myself”. Many sufferers assert that saying these thoughts out loud and in front of a mirror truly helps. Along with repeating this mantra to yourself, it is helpful to change your diet. Eating healthy food with less processed sugar and fat, drinking less caffeine and exercising more can positively affect your self-esteem and noticeably reduce the level of anxiety when dealing with social interactions.
If self-healing is not working for you, then specialized doctors offer what it is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In a safe environment, which could be a clinic as well as the patient’s house, doctors recreate a social situation that causes stress to the sufferer and help him/her face and eventually overcome the fear that triggers anxiety. Once this phase is over, the doctor begins a controlled practice of CBT which entails exposing the patient to real social events.
Relaxation techniques are also commonly used during cognitive behavioral therapy. Many patients start with learning how to breathe properly, therefore controlling their heartbeat. The reason why these relaxation lessons are so important is because when a person feels anxious he/she starts breathing much faster and each breath becomes shorter and shorter which could eventually lead to feeling out of breath, dizzy and possibly even faint. However, if we learn to recognize the very first symptoms of a social anxiety attack, we can immediately prevent it from getting worse by controlling our breathing. Another common relaxation technique helps muscles from becoming tense. Yoga and meditation lessons are usually suggested to people who have been diagnosed with anxiety.
If none of these solutions works and you have a more severe case of social anxiety disorder, then doctors offer medications, along with CBT, that will help balance chemicals in your nervous system. Some of these medicines are Xanax, Valium and Ativan. Moreover, some doctors might also suggest taking medications that help with heart problems and high blood pressure, two common and high-risk consequences of social anxiety disorder.
In some of the most delicate cases, where the social phobia began during childhood, doctors may recommend psychotherapy. Although this type of cure may require a long time before actual results can be perceived and seen, it is important to give it a try especially if the causes for the disorder are unknown or lost in the past. During psychotherapy sessions, it is common practice to also address stress management techniques in order to prevent and face stressful situations that prevent the patient from living everyday life.
Whatever approach you might take, these techniques have all proven to be successful in over 75% of cases. Therefore, if you feel like society is too big of a place for you to peacefully survive, remember you are not alone and there are achievable solutions that will help you get over the fears you feel take control of your live and emotions.