Social anxiety disorder occurs when a person experiences extreme anxiety in social situations. There are signs to indicate that somebody might have social anxiety disorder. There are also effective treatments available.
This can help if:
- you feel anxious in social situations
- you avoid social situations because they make you feel anxious
- you worry you’ll embarrass yourself and that others will judge you.
What is social anxiety disorder?
Feeling uncomfortable or nervous in a social situation is something that everyone will probably experience at some point. However, some people feel so much fear and anxiety, they avoid social situations altogether. When severe anxiety begins to affect your everyday social life and you no longer participate in social events that you used to enjoy, you may have social anxiety disorder.
For someone with social anxiety disorder, almost anything that involves social interaction is extremely stressful. Everyday activities such as making small talk, eating or drinking in public, meeting people, or even going to school or work, can all become overwhelming.
Signs of social anxiety disorder include:
- feeling anxious in social situations (physical symptoms include racing heart, sweating, queasy stomach, dizziness, shortness of breath)
- feeling pressured to do things ‘right’ in social situations
- feeling self-conscious around others
- worrying that others will notice your anxiety
- replaying how you acted in a social situation over and over again in your mind afterwards
- not doing things you want to do because of feeling anxious.
Research suggests that almost 11 per cent of Australians experience social anxiety disorder in their lifetime. This means that, while it might be scary, you’re not alone.
What treatments are available for social anxiety disorder?
If you think you might have social anxiety disorder, the first thing you should do is seek professional help.
People who tend to avoid social situations and who experience unhelpful thinking patterns that make them feel more anxious can benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which provides helpful ways to change these habits and patterns. CBT is based on:
- Education – learning about the signs and symptoms of your social anxiety and why they occur.
- Change in thinking – identifying and reframing unhelpful thinking styles that contribute to your social anxiety.
- Change in behaviour – giving you the tools to help break the habit of avoiding social situations. This might include taking small, slow steps, with support, to gradually build up your comfort level.
- Helpful coping strategies – learning how to use things like mindfulness to support you during times when you’re feeling socially anxious.
It can be particularly difficult for someone with social anxiety disorder to seek help, because seeing a mental health professional requires them to interact with someone in a social situation. It’s important to remember that mental health professionals understand your worries and will know how to talk to you. Try viewing your appointment with them as the first step in facing your fears.
To make it a little less hard, it might be helpful to:
- ask a friend or family member to help you book an appointment with a professional (you can text them if asking face-to-face or over the phone is too hard right now)
- ask a friend or family member to come with you to your appointment
- make the appointment with someone you know, such as your regular GP, a wellbeing teacher at school or a counsellor/therapist you’ve seen before
- write down some of your questions and thoughts beforehand so that it’s easier to remember them during the appointment.
Coping strategies for right now
It might take you a little while to get professional support, so here are a few things you can use immediately whenever you’re feeling anxious about social situations.
- Breathe. Download the ReachOut Breathe app, which will take you through guided breathing to slow your heart rate and keep you in the present.
- Mindfulness/meditation. Check out this article about how to practise mindfulness and stay in the present, rather than worrying about the future.
- Peer support. Join the ReachOut Forums. They’re anonymous, and you can speak to other young people who feel just like you do.
Listen to Harris, a first year uni student, talk about how he learnt to manage the symptoms of his anxiety.