Social anxiety disorder

Social anxiety, or social phobia, occurs when a person experiences intense anxiety in social situations. There are signs that can indicate that someone might have social anxiety. There are also effective treatments that can help with social anxiety disorder.

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.

Girl looking upset in a group of people

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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. Someone with social anxiety disorder might constantly feel self-conscious and worried about being judged or embarrassed around other people. 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.

For someone with social anxiety disorder, it might be more than just a fear of socialising; it could be fear of dating, or of meeting new people, or of going to work or school. It can also make doing anything in public extremely stressful. Everyday activities such as making small talk, eating at a restaurant or using public transport can all become overwhelming.

How do you know you have 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 signs of social anxiety include:

  • feeling anxious in social situations (physical symptoms include racing heart, sweating, queasy stomach, dizziness and shortness of breath)

  • feeling pressured to do things ‘right’ in social situations

  • feeling self-conscious around others and anxious when you’re the centre of attention

  • 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 its causes.

Even if you experience some of these signs of social anxiety, the only way to know for sure that you have this disorder is by seeing a health-care provider such as your GP. They’ll make sure there are no physical problems causing your symptoms and can refer you to a mental health professional such as a psychologist. Your mental health professional will talk to you about your symptoms and will be able to make a diagnosis and get you the help you need.

What causes social anxiety?

There is no single cause of social anxiety, but there are some factors that can increase your risk of experiencing social phobia. These include:

  • other family members experiencing an anxiety disorder

  • being bullied or teased

  • stress at school, uni or work.

Read more about what causes anxiety disorders.

How is social anxiety treated?

If you think you might have social anxiety, the most effective way to deal with it is to seek 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. CBT for social anxiety disorder might involve working on different ways of responding to situations that make you feel anxious and practising your social skills. Your mental health professional may also prescribe a medication to help with social anxiety disorder symptoms.

Learn more about CBT and other treatments for anxiety.

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:

You can search for more treatment courses on the Head to Health website.

How to deal with social anxiety when you’re around others

There are a few things you can try immediately to help with social anxiety disorder when you’re faced with a public or social situation.

  • Focus on others, not on yourself. Really listen to what they’re saying and think of follow-up questions and comments, instead of focusing on what you think they think of you.

  • Focus on the present moment. What can you hear, see and smell? 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. 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:

  1. Say ‘hello’ to someone you know.

  2. Ask them a work/school-related question.

  3. Ask them what they did over the weekend.

  4. Sit with them for a tea or lunch break.

  5. 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 convenience store. It’s okay to make mistakes. Chances are, the other person isn’t judging you and will soon forget what you said.

Coping strategies to deal with the feelings of social anxiety

If you’re not ready to see a professional yet, here are some things you can do right now to cope with the symptoms of social anxiety.

  • Mindfulness/meditation: Check out this article about how to practise mindfulness and stay in the present, rather than worrying about the future.

  • Stick to a regular sleep routine: Getting enough sleep can help you feel calmer.

  • Eat healthy food and do regular physical activity: This can help lift your mood and improve your sleep.

  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, smoking and drugs: These can make your symptoms worse.

  • Get support from peers: Join the ReachOut Online Community. It’s an anonymous space, and you can speak to other young people who feel just like you do. You could also book a free chat with a ReachOut peer worker. They have experience with dealing with tough times and can just be there to listen, or can help you figure out what you can do next. Book a free session on ReachOut PeerChat.

Get some more ideas on how to manage your symptoms of anxiety. A combination of self-care, the right management strategies, and support from a professional can help you to manage or overcome social anxiety.

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