Too Scared Social Anxiety Disorder
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder?
We all know what it feels like to clam up at a party where you don't know anybody, or get a little shaky before walking into a job interview. And maybe there are times where the thought of having to interact with all the parents at your kid's Saturday morning soccer game makes you want to crawl back into bed. These situations happen—but chances are, you're able to pull yourself through them and move on.
But what if you can't?
For people with social anxiety disorder (SAD), the stress making smalltalk, maintaining eye contact, or ordering food at a restaurant is crippling. It can make going to school or work difficult, and have a major impact on day-to-day life.
What is social anxiety disorder—and how's it different from shyness?
SAD might sound like it's just shyness to the extreme. But SAD—also called social phobia—is a real mental health condition that affects about 7 percent of American adults, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. “It’s a persistent fear that one will behave in a way that’s embarrassing or humiliating,” explains Adam Gonzalez, PhD, founding director of the Mind Body Clinical Research Center at Stony Brook Medicine. It can be debilitating, to the point where a person might get panic attacks in situations that make them anxious—if they don't just avoid those situations altogether.
Shyness or introversion, on the other hand, is just a personality trait where a person might feel awkward or apprehensive in certain social situations. Almost all of us have it to some degree. Typically, introverted folks prefer interacting with just a few people at once instead of socializing in big groups. But that's a preference, not a fear, emphasizes Ramani Durvasula, PhD, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. “They might not necessarily enjoy bigger crowds, but they aren’t anxious,” she says.
Take public speaking, for example. A shy person might be a little nervous before talking in front of a big group. But they’d still go through with it and maybe even start to get more comfortable after a minute or two. But someone with social anxiety disorder might worry about it intensely for days or weeks, says Durvasula. They might feel scared about being judged, looking stupid or boring, or being outright disliked. The fear could become so debilitating that the person might opt out altogether.
Being shy doesn’t automatically mean you’re plagued by social anxiety. In fact, some findings suggest that only around 12 percent of people who describe themselves as shy actually meet the criteria for SAD. “People can experience shyness without having anxiety, distress, or fear about being shy,” Gonzalez says.
It’s more common for people with social anxiety disorder to also consider themselves shy. But that’s not always the case. “People with social anxiety disorder can be outgoing and talkative,” explains Misti Nicholson, PsyD, Director of Austin Anxiety & OCD Specialists.
In both cases, it’s not just about how a person acts on the outside when they’re around other people. How they feel on the inside during those interactions is just as important.
Signs you might have social anxiety disorder
While a mental health professional is the only person who can give you an official social anxiety disorder diagnosis, thinking about how you react in certain social settings can help you start understanding your feelings. If you answer yes to the following questions, and have been feeling this way for at least six months and these feelings make it difficult to complete everyday tasks, it's time to talk to your doctor about SAD.
A person with SAD might actually skip going to a party where they won’t know anyone or stop talking at meetings because they’re scared of looking stupid.
When you have SAD, you may agonize over the smallest social situations, like using a public restroom, eating in front of others, or talking to a cashier at the grocery store.
SAD often comes with intense physical symptoms. Sure, from time to time we’ve all felt our faces get a little red when we’re interacting with someone intimidating. But for someone with SAD, social situations regularly come with sweating, heart palpitations, nausea, and even trembling.
People who have SAD have an intense fear of being humiliated, judged, and rejected, which makes giving a presentation, playing a musical instrument on stage, or playing in a sports game impossible.
How to treat social anxiety disorder
Getting over shyness might just be a matter of putting yourself out there more often, Nicholson says. That could mean asking a bunch of friends to join you for happy hour instead of meeting just one other person. Want to take things to the next level? Try signing up for an improv acting class, recommends Nicholson. “It’s a great way for people to practice stepping outside of their comfort zone in a safe, supportive environment,” she says.
If you suspect that you might have social anxiety disorder, talk to your doctor about the best course of treatment for you. Treatment usually consists of talk therapy, support groups, or medication (usually antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, beta blockers, or a combination of drugs).
By understanding how you think about situations that make you anxious, you can learn how to challenge those thoughts and adopt more realistic ones, Gonzalez says. Eventually, you might work up to exposing yourself to nerve-racking situations, which can show you that your fears are less likely to happen than you might think.
Video: Social anxiety disorder across the globe
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