Social Anxiety Explained

Learning Hub

Learn about the symptoms of different mental health conditions and what you can do to tackle them.

What do I do if I feel anxious about social situations?

Social Anxiety Explained

Most of us feel awkward in at least some social situations, especially when we’re going to be in the spotlight or meeting new people. It’s also very normal to feel shy, nervous, or uncomfortable in situations where we might be judged, like an interview, meeting your partner’s family, or starting a new job.

Most of the time, this kind of anxiety settles with time, and it doesn’t often stop us from doing fun and important things. For some people however, anxiety about social situations can be debilitating and can impact their work, relationships, and quality of life. This is generally called social anxiety.

If you feel very stressed in social situations, or if you often feel very worried about other people judging you, then you might benefit from learning more about social anxiety disorder.

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is excessive and persistent fear of being judged by other people. People with social anxiety worry about embarrassing or humiliating themselves. They tend to see themselves as strange, ugly, stupid, or flawed in some way. They also tend to worry a lot about being judged for showing physical signs of anxiety, like sweating, blushing, or trembling.

Unsurprisingly, people with social anxiety feel very stressed in situations where they might be judged by other people, like parties, job interviews, meeting new people, public speaking, getting a haircut, eating in public, or going shopping. As a result, they tend to avoid these situations as much as they can.

This means that people with social anxiety often miss out on important events or opportunities. They can also struggle to communicate their needs, say ‘no’ to people, and maintain friendships. As a result, social anxiety can have a significant impact on people’s confidence, self-esteem, and psychological wellbeing.

What Are The Signs of Social Anxiety?

Physical Symptoms

  • Blushing easily.
  • Sweating excessively.
  • Trembling or shaking.
  • Feeling nauseous.
  • Heart palpitations.

Psychological Symptoms

  • Low self-esteem.
  • Negative and self-critical thoughts.
  • Worrying about social situations in advance.
  • Ruminating about social situations afterwards.
  • Assuming that other people are harsh and judgemental.

Behavioural Symptoms

  • Avoiding social situations, even if this means missing out on something important.
  • Using drugs or alcohol to ‘cope’ with social situations.
  • Wearing dark clothes to hide sweating.
  • Only going into social situations if you have a friend with you.
  • Planning what you’ll do or say in social situations far in advance.

This is not an exhaustive list of social anxiety symptoms. Please remember that only a qualified mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety condition following a thorough assessment of your personal situation and circumstances. If you’re concerned about the way you’ve been feeling, please don’t delay speaking with your regular healthcare provider or check out our anonymous online test below and see if one of our online courses could help.

Not Sure Whether to Seek Help?

Take a Test to See How You Feel

If you’re unsure about the way you feel, take our anonymous online test to check whether your levels of stress, anxiety, or depression are within a healthy range, and see if one of our online courses could help.

What Causes Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety doesn’t have one specific cause. It generally develops from a complex combination of a few different factors, like genes, personality, and early life experiences.

Research suggests that there’s a genetic component to social anxiety disorder. There isn’t a set selection of genes that have been shown to cause social anxiety. However, it does seem to run in families and having a family member with social anxiety increases your chance of having this disorder as well.

People’s early life experiences also influence the development of social anxiety. Experiencing situations that impact your confidence at a young age can be a risk factor for social anxiety, like overly critical parenting, bullying, or being excluded from important social groups. However, social anxiety can also develop in people who didn’t have any significant negative experiences growing up.

Personality factors also contribute to social anxiety. Social anxiety is more common in people who are naturally shy or introverted. Personality traits like being perfectionistic and self-critical, or being a ‘worrier’, can also lead to social anxiety.

The impact of life stressors also shouldn’t be underestimated. Significant life changes, like starting a new job, having a baby, or developing a serious illness can impact people’s confidence. Missing out on important opportunities or experiencing a traumatic event (especially one that impacts someone’s appearance) can also change how people see themselves.

How To Deal With Social Anxiety

Psychoeducation refers to learning about what social anxiety disorder is, how it develops, and how it’s maintained. This knowledge can potentially give someone a greater understanding of and control over their anxiety. This, in turn, can reduce feelings of fear and helplessness and boost confidence and self-esteem. Educating friends and family can also help them offer guidance and support.

The most important pieces of information for a person with social anxiety are:

  • Social anxiety is a common disorder
  • It is not a sign of weakness or a character fault
  • Social anxiety disorder can be treated, and there is a treatment that suits most people
  • Recovery is the rule, not the exception

CBT is an excellent treatment for social anxiety, alone or in conjunction with medication. CBT involves learning skills to:

  • Combat the negative and self-critical thoughts that characterise social anxiety
  • Manage the emotions of fear and shame that characterise social anxiety, and build a greater sense of confidence
  • Re-engage in or start new activities that you may have stopped doing because of anxiety

Some CBT programs for social anxiety (including ours) also teach skills for assertiveness, public speaking, and communicating effectively.

CBT will often be recommended when:

  • The person has found CBT helpful in the past.
  • The person wants to take an active role in their recovery.
  • The person wants to learn skills to help them get well and stay well.
  • A competent, trained clinician who has expertise in CBT is available, or the person is prepared to use internet CBT (iCBT).
  • The person does not want to take medication or there is a medical reason that they cannot take antidepressant medications.
  • The person prefers CBT or iCBT.

Some people with social anxiety disorder can benefit from antidepressant medications (antidepressant is a general but somewhat confusing term – these medications are effective for anxiety disorders). However, these medications are generally only recommended for people with severe social anxiety and are most effective when used alongside CBT. Some things to remember when taking these medications are:

  • Take the medication as prescribed.
  • Don’t stop the medication without contacting the health professional who prescribed it.
  • Side effects lessen as your body adjusts. If the side effects don’t diminish, or are unreasonable, contact your health professional.
  • Don’t stop the medication when you feel better or your anxiety may return.

What is CBT?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Social Anxiety

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT is considered to be one of the leading psychological treatments for social anxiety. All of our online courses use CBT strategies to help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Click below to see if CBT can help you tackle your symptoms to improve the way you feel.

Strategies for Managing Symptoms of Social Anxiety

Cognitive Strategies

People with social anxiety disorder tend to overestimate the likelihood of being judged by other people and underestimate their own worth. They’re often self-critical, can fixate on their own flaws, and constantly compare themselves to other people. They can also be hyperaware of and embarrassed by the physical symptoms of anxiety, like blushing, sweating, or trembling.

Cognitive strategies help people identify and challenge these kinds of thoughts, and learn new, more helpful ways of thinking. In doing so, these strategies help can people become more confident and self-compassionate.

Behavioural Strategies

Two key features of social anxiety are avoidance and safety behaviours. Avoidance is when you miss out on fun or important experiences because of anxiety, for example, skipping a friends’ birthday party or an important presentation at work because you’re afraid of being judged. Safety behaviours are things you do that help you ‘cope’ with anxiety, like having a few drinks before you get to a party.

Avoidance and safety behaviours lessen your anxiety briefly, making you feel better in the short-term. But, in the long-term, they prevent you from overcoming your fears. This keeps anxiety going. Therefore, behavioural strategies aim to help you stop doing the things that make your anxiety worse and start doing things that will build your confidence and self-esteem.

Coping With Symptoms of Social Anxiety

When you’re feeling nervous about facing a social situation, you can try some of the below strategies:

  • Breathe in through your nose for 3 seconds, and out for at least 3 seconds.
  • As you breathe, focus on your breath. Notice how it feels in your nose, throat, chest, and stomach.
  • As you breathe out, notice any tension leaving your body.
  • Repeat for at least 3 minutes.

Physical exercise (the kind that makes you huff and puff) can help reduce feelings of anxiety, and boost mood, confidence, and self-esteem.

  • Try doing 30 minutes of cardio exercise at least 3 times a week
  • If you can, push yourself to really get your heart rate up
  • Start small and build up – 5 minutes is better than nothing
  • You can also make a fun music playlist to listen to while you work out, something that gives you a burst of energy and confidence!
  • Make a list of your three best features—perhaps with the help of a friend or relative. Carry the list with you and read it to yourself whenever you find yourself focusing on negative thoughts.
  • Make a list of three difficult things that you coped with better than you expected yourself to. Read this list when you find yourself worrying about how you’d cope if these worries came true.
  • Keep a daily record of all the small nice or interesting things that happen and discuss these events with your friends when you see them.

Interested in learning more?

The Social Anxiety Course

Check out our practical, self-paced online course that teaches step-by-step strategies for tackling symptoms of generalised anxiety.