Oh the nerves, the nerves; the mysteries of this machine called man! Oh the little that unhinges it, poor creatures that we are!" ~Charles Dickens
Heart palpitations, sweaty palms, dry mouth, flushed face, nausea, and dizziness...must be your first date or a job interview, or maybe a big test...NOPE! You're at a PARTY!!! HUH?? How can that be? Those are symptoms of anxiety or someone having a panic attack, but a PARTY?? WHAT GIVES?!?!?
SOCIAL ANXIETY- (social phobia) "is the fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. You could say social anxiety is the fear and anxiety of being negatively judged and evaluated by other people. It is a pervasive disorder and causes anxiety and fear in most all areas of a person's life". (Social Anxiety Association)
This happens to be one of the largest mental health problems in the world today. Obviously this doesn't just affect people when at parties; this affects them anywhere they are in the presence of others where they perceive they will be judged negatively. It can be quite debilitating, disrupting major aspects of their lives.
Another contributing factor people with social anxiety have to deal with is the perception other people have of them. Aloof, cold, unfriendly, unapproachable, a "bitch", stuck-up, angry, weird...I'm sure there are other descriptive words but you get the picture.
"If I could just let people know I am afraid of making a fool of myself in front of them, by tripping over my feet or my words; I am a cool person, I just want to fit in without the worry."
People with social anxiety will appear withdrawn, shy, quiet, and even disinterested. There are many triggers that cause significant distress for them; but ask yourself if you have experienced anxiety from any of these, because, well, Yeah! you may have some social anxiety in you as well!
- Being introduced to other people: How's your handshake, is it firm or a dead fish when you meet people? Can you remember their name? Are you making eye contact?
- Being teased or criticized: Friends like to bust chops with each other but for some it is extremely embarrassing...Or maybe your work is being critiqued and you start thinking, I must be really incompetent, or she must really not like me. We can put bullying in here as well. Victims of bullying experience significant anxiety in social settings, whether they are in the presence of the bully or not; they believe the people around them will start teasing them and embarrassing them...it's very traumatic.
- Being the center of attention: Oh boy, this is the big one. While there are certainly some who love being the center of attention, people with social anxiety dread it, and they can be extremely embarrassed being the focal point in a social setting.
A little self-disclosure time here: Believe it or not I do NOT like being the center of attention; I think I have a lot of these issues (anyone know a good therapist?) I try to avoid it when I can but sometimes it is just not possible, like when it is my birthday!!! Singing Happy Birthday to me....HOLY MOLY! Get me outta here! Who else has that one? Really, just me?? Yeah right...
Well here's the thing, many people do not like being the center of attention, it's like the spotlight is on you, you need to perform, and we're all watching and ready to judge. NO PRESSURE! It's like walking into a room with a bunch of people in it and all of a sudden they are all looking at YOUUUUU....OOOOHH, look who just walked in! Look at how he stands with those two legs of his, who does he think he is anyway??
The reality is, THEY DON'T CARE!!! You piqued their attention for exactly 1.5 seconds and then they went back to what they were doing. You THINK they are devoting more time to you, studying you, analyzing you, smelling you, but they aren't. (Well maybe they are smelling you, what cologne is that Obsession for Men??)
What I have learned over the years, and a little bit from watching the movie High Anxiety (Mel Brooks classic, highly recommend!), is sometimes if you want to go unnoticed you need to do something outlandish or boisterous...WAIT...WHAT? yeah I know...what the heck is this guy talking about? "I just got done telling you I sweat, I'm beet red, and I want to vomit and you want me to get loud?!??!!?" Well, sorta...if you feel like people are judging you for basically walking into a room and breathing why not give them something (intentionally) to focus on? One way to do this is doing something self-deprecating...that's right, make fun of yourself! "Wow I don't know anyone here!" I hope I don't end up facing the corner again! Sometimes pointing out the obvious in a humorous manner diffuses an otherwise extremely anxiety-provoking situation. I believe laughter is the "Great Diffuser," it breaks the ice, eases tension, and makes those around you less anxious (including yourself)...but it needs to come from you. When you make fun of yourself or the situation, you know what you will find?? Other people there feel the same way, or have been in the same situation. Of course, it makes things a lot easier when you see someone you know; make a point of going up to that person and greeting them. Don't wait for them to come to you.
“A mistake in judgement isn’t fatal, but too much anxiety about judgement is” Pauline Kael
- Being watched or observed while doing something: "I always feel like, someone is watching me-eee", sorry Maxwell diversion there (Who knew the reference there...where are my 80s people?!). This is the ultimate in being judged; performing a task, or performing in general while people are watching you. "What are they thinking?" "Do they like what I'm doing?" "What if I mess up? They're going to laugh at me""They must think I'm incompetent"
- Having to say something in a formal, public situation: Public speaking #1 fear (see previous point) Another thing I have learned over the years from speaking in public is having tunnel vision. Actually it is something I had back in high school when I was a pitcher for the school baseball team. I was able to tune out the stimuli around me and only focus on the catcher. When I did let distractions get in my head, my performance suffered. In public speaking situations, I would zone in one or two friendly faces (preferably one to the left and one to the right of me) or I would focus on inanimate objects near people so it looked like I was looking at them. When I did this I was able to tune out the rest of the stimulation around me and deliver my speech or whatever I was talking about. The longer I was up there the more at ease I became. What are some of your experiences or pointers with speaking in public?
- Meeting people in authority: Meeting important people or those who have influence can be quite intimidating. Right away you are trying to put your best foot forward and make a good impression. ..or at least not like a fool! How about feeling so anxious you avoid meeting them at all? What are the ramifications of that? Missed opportunities, failed promotions, negative/false perceptions, loss of friends and significant others ("yeah I don't think I want to meet your dad honey so we gotta break-up!").
- Feeling insecure and out of place in social situations: How about sitting with a group of people and there is a conversation going on and you have absolutely nothing to contribute, your mind is a total blank! And then the death knell strikes...someone turns to you and says...how come you're not talking??? 😨 <cue the thunder and lightning, zoom in on your face really fast> Been there!
- Making phone calls, ordering at a restaurant, returning something to a store, raising your hand in class the list goes on. Please feel free to add more in the comments section.
“It’s sad actually, because my anxiety keeps me from enjoying things as much as I should at this age” -Amanda Seyfried
“Comedy is a probably a way to deal with anxiety. Sometimes it’s a way of dealing with pain” -Hugh Grant
“It’s official: The biggest back-to-school bullies are anxiety, worry, and fear”-Chuck Norris
Cognitive behavioral therapy paired with medication is the best course of treatment for lasting results. After a period of time, consideration could be given to ween the person off the medication. Now I know how some of you feel about taking medications, and I totally understand your apprehension. Depending on how severe the social anxiety is, taking a medication like an SSRI (Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor), can noticeably reduce the person's level of anxiety enough for them to be able to participate in social situations.
I am not a big fan of the anti-anxiety medications (i.e. Xanax, Valium, Ativan, etc.) because they basically don't "treat" the issue...they just sedate you. My thought is, if you need or want to be in a social situation, appearing sedated in front of a bunch of people just may not give you the social phobia relief you were looking for! Will you appear and feel less anxious? Well, sure, but you may also appear "under the influence"*, and worse, if there is alcohol involved (liquid courage) and you partake, you won't have to worry about what people think of you...either you won't remember or you'll be unconscious...or worse!
*(Interesting note: getting pulled over for a DUI (Driving Under the Influence) can also include those anti-anxiety meds; the sedation from the medication causes impaired judgement.)
Support groups that specifically address social anxiety can be a great treatment option because there is opportunity to explore treatment techniques right there with other people...AND they all have the same issue!!
There are many other adjunct treatment options to help manage the anxiety and increase participation in social settings. I have a cool therapeutic tool I use in my office that has amazing results for people with anxiety (as well as depression and insomnia). It's called Alpha-Stim, it's cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES). I won't go into great detail about it right now, but trust me it's good stuff! Non-evasive treatment that reduces anxiety-related symptoms, with little to no side effect...who wouldn't want that?!?!
If you have any questions and/or comments please feel free to submit them here. I hope this was helpful and entertaining!
Until next time... "Remember the Force will be with you. Always." -Obi Wan Kenobi