Social anxiety, or social phobia, occurs when a person experiences intense anxiety in social situations. There are signs indicating that someone might have social anxiety. There are also effective treatments available.
This can help if you:
- feel anxious in social situations
- avoid social situations because they make you feel anxious
- worry you’ll embarrass yourself and that others will judge you.
What is social anxiety or social phobia?
We all know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable, nervous or shy in a social situation. 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 or social phobia.
For someone with social anxiety, 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 and symptoms of social anxiety
Research suggests that almost 13 per cent of Australians experience social anxiety in their lifetime. This means that, while it might be scary, you’re not alone. Some common symptoms 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 judge or think badly of you, or notice your anxiety
- replaying how you acted in a social situation over and over again in your mind afterwards
- trying to keep quiet or not to draw attention to yourself
- not doing things you want to do because of feeling anxious.
Learn more about the general symptoms of anxiety and what causes it here.
How can I deal with social situations?
Here are a few things you can do immediately whenever you’re feeling anxious about a social situation. You could try to:
- focus on others, not yourself. Focus on engaging with them, rather than what you think they think of you.
- listen to what others are saying, rather than your own negative thoughts.
- focus on the present moment. What can you hear, see and smell right now? What’s happening right now? This will help keep your mind from worrying about what you’re going to say next or what you just said.
- remember that anxiety isn’t as visible as you think. Even if people notice that you’re nervous, that doesn’t mean they’ll think badly of you.
Practice makes perfect and when you’re ready, you can try tackling social situations in small, manageable steps. After each step gets easier, you can move onto something more challenging. For example:
- Say ‘hello’ to someone you know.
- Ask them a work/school-related question.
- Ask them what they did over the weekend.
- Sit with them for a tea or lunch break.
- Share with them some information about yourself.
Then, you could try to say ‘hello’ to someone you don't know who works at a cafe or grocery store. It’s okay to make mistakes. Chances are, the other person isn’t judging you and won’t even remember what you said after a couple of days.
What treatments are available for social anxiety disorder?
If you think you might have social anxiety, the most effective thing to help you cope is seeking professional help.
People who tend to avoid social situations because of unhelpful thinking patterns that make them feel more anxious may benefit from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which provides helpful ways to change these habits and patterns. Learn more about CBT and other treatments for anxiety here.
It can be particularly difficult for someone with social anxiety 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
- try a helpline that you can chat to online or talk to on the phone.
Here are some online treatments for social anxiety that are available for free:
Search for more treatment courses here.
Coping strategies for right now
If you’re not ready to see a professional yet, here are some things you can do right to cope with the symptoms of social anxiety.
- 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.
Get some more ideas on how to manage your symptoms of anxiety here.
Listen to Harris, a first year uni student, talk about how he learnt to manage the symptoms of his anxiety.
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