Most people have heard of social anxiety. Many of us have some of the symptoms of social anxiety such as experiencing a racing heart or dry mouth if we have to make a speech in front of a lot of people. Most of us can get through the feared situation and feel proud of ourselves after it is over. But some people experience anxiety that is so intense that it gets in the way of doing normal things. People with social anxiety often fear answering questions in class, making conversation with strangers, eating, typing, or signing their name in front of people, ordering food at a restaurant, making clothing or other mistakes that people might notice, or being the center of attention in any way. They tend to avoid social situations and they feel isolated and discouraged as a result. The good news is that social anxiety is very treatable! With some help, people can learn how to think and act differently and can experience greater comfort and confidence in social situations.
Key Features of Social Anxiety:
- Persistent fear of one of more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people and believes that these people will be judging or evaluating him/her negatively. The person fears that he or she will act in a way that is humiliating or embarrassing.
- When exposed to the feared situation, the person might have a panic attack.
- The person recognizes that the fear is excessive and unrealistic.
- The feared situation is avoided or endured with intense anxiety or distress.
- The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress of the feared situation interferes significantly with the person’s normal routine, academic or occupational functioning, or social activities or relationships.
People, both adults and children can benefit from psychological treatment if the anxiety interferes with their normal lives.
Clinical social workers at the RAHS School Based Health Centers have experience helping teens and kids overcome social anxiety. (We can also help adults find help in the community.) The treatment involves Cognitive Behavior Therapy. This therapy helps people change thinking and behavior patterns that have kept them stuck in their worry and avoidance.
Shortly after the start of the second semester, Reyannah, a student at a local middle school requested help from the RAHS social worker to improve her social anxieties. She worried that people were looking at her and judging her harshly. Because of her worry that she might say something embarrassing, she avoided speaking in class and talking to kids and adults she encountered during the day. She had a lot of negative thoughts about herself. She also felt lonely and isolated.
The RAHS social worker helped Reyannah challenge her thought that should always look, act, and speak perfectly. As part of her treatment, she agreed to make a serious clothing mistake for one day. She walked around the school with green party streamers hanging down from the back of her jeans. When people commented on the streamers, Reyannah was instructed to say, “Oh, do I have something on the back of my pants?” One teacher asked her, “Did you use green toilet paper today?” At first Reyannah felt embarrassed by these comments, but she was able to tolerate the feelings and keep going with her project. As the day wore on, her embarrassment diminished and she felt more comfortable with the comments and attention of other students and adults. She could laugh at herself. Her worry about what other people thought of her decreased as she realized that she could still feel good about herself while making a noticeable mistake in front of other people.
Reyannah was willing to confront her fear of talking to strangers by going to the mall and starting conversations with a lot of strangers. Her first assignment was to say “Hello” to 10 strangers and try to get the people to say “Hello” back to her. At first, her anxiety was quite high but, after several successes, the anxiety decreased and she felt comfortable and even happy saying “Hello” to perfect strangers. With her confidence soaring, she was able to start conversations with 5 strangers as she waited in line to order coffee and cookies at the food court.
Reyannah learned that by confronting her fears and not avoiding feared situations, her anxieties decreased and she experienced more confidence and enjoyment in social situations. Social anxiety is real and common but it can be overcome with some help and some hard work.