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What is social anxiety? Causes, symptoms and how to overcome the fear

Social anxiety is self-consciousness on steroids, but you can get to the point where it doesn't own you.
Upset girl with friends gossiping
Social anxiety is often learned: Life experiences convince you that people are judgmental.Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

There’s no such thing as a fun office party or relaxed gathering in the world of social anxiety.

For millions of Americans, being around people is agony — a performance to get through while others seemingly judge, mock and coolly pounce on every mistake.

It's a serious problem: When researchers analyzed various types of anxiety, social anxiety had a "unique association" with alcoholism, predicting alcohol abuse over and beyond the effect of panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder and other problems, a new study in the journal Depression and Anxiety has found.

What is social anxiety?

About 12 percent of U.S. adults experience social anxiety at some point in their lives, the National Institute of Mental Health estimates. Ellen Hendriksen is one of them — with a twist. She’s also a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, helping patients overcome their fears.

Social anxiety is self-consciousness on steroids, she writes in her book, “How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.”

“It is fundamentally a distortion. It’s a belief that something is wrong with you — that you have a fatal flaw,” Hendriksen told TODAY. “We perceive we’re incapable or stupid or incompetent in a social situation, and unless we conceal it, it will be revealed and we’ll be judged or rejected.”

What are the symptoms of social anxiety?

The National Institute of Mental Health lists these common signs:

  • being very self-conscious and feeling embarrassed and awkward in front of other people.
  • being extremely afraid others will judge you, find you boring or reject you.
  • finding it scary to be with other people and having a hard time talking to them even though you wish you could.
  • avoiding places where there are other people you'll have to meet and interact with.

But underneath all that worry, people are actually equipped with everything they need to be comfortable with themselves and others, Hendriksen noted. You can get to the point where the fear does not own you.

Here’s her basic advice on how to overcome social anxiety:

1. Challenge your Inner Critic

It’ll make you doubt yourself, conjure up the worst-case scenario and convince you it will definitely happen. But what it says is not true, Hendriksen said.

Talk back to your Inner Critic with logic, she advised. First, specify exactly what you’re afraid of. Perhaps you think: “I’ll make a fool of myself if I say something right now.” Then ask yourself three questions:

1. How bad would that really be? OK, someone may be bored for a moment or someone will look at you funny. It’s not the end of the world.

2. What are the odds? Pretty low. Do you really think people will mock you or laugh in your face?

3. How will I cope? You can smile, turn to a friend or start a new conversation. Life goes on.

2. Let go of safety behaviors

To lessen anxiety in social situations, people often stare at their phones, wear sunglasses to avoid making eye contact, hide in plain sight, say very little or leave the room.

Ironically, such behaviors can come across as cold, distant or stuck-up — everything people with social anxiety are not. They’re just nervous.

“We think those things are what kept us safe and kept us from being judged. But in fact, those are the very things that maintain the anxiety and keep it going for the next social interactions,” Hendriksen said.

Next time, resist the temptation to take out the phone or flee the room.

3. Realize it gets better after the freak out period

When you face something you fear, like a social gathering, it’s all systems go, Hendriksen noted. Your heart races, your Inner Critic screams “You can’t do this!” and there’s a strong urge to leave.

“That moment is the cue — this is the chance to stretch and grow and to use your skills and to see what happens. Wait out that freak out period,” she said. “After it peaks, there’s this slide down the other side and our anxiety will slowly decrease.”

Keep trying and keep showing up, Hendriksen advised. It’s worth the investment of being willing to feel anxious for a little while in order to reap the benefits of feeling much less anxious over time.

4. You don’t have to be smoothest person in the room

Feeling the pressure tell to say exactly the right thing and charm everybody is counterproductive because it can make a person freeze up and not say anything.

“Instead of being your best self, it is OK just to be yourself,” Hendriksen said. “It’s OK to make mistakes, have pauses in conversations, lose your train of thought. As long as you are being warm and kind and showing curiosity and connecting with the other people around you, that’s what matters.”

Remember, blushing, making mistakes, being vulnerable and authentic shows you’re human and makes you more likable, she added.

5. Accept the shenanigans of your anxious body

Embrace your racing heart and sweaty palms without judgment, Hendriksen said. A bit of self-compassion will help put some space between you and the anxious thoughts.

She likes this analogy:

When people are in the throes of social anxiety, it’s like being under a waterfall: Worries and fears pound down and churn all around. But being mindful puts you behind the waterfall: The worries are still there, but there is distance. You can observe them without having to take them that seriously.

6. You’ll feel less anxious by living your life

Patients often tell Hendriksen they want to be less anxious first so they can finally go out and do things they’ve been avoiding like traveling, seeing friends or dating. But that’s actually backwards. Doing those very things now builds confidence, leading to less anxiety down the road, she said.

Put action first by creating a challenge list of things that scare you a little, like introducing yourself to someone you don’t know. Write down situations you typically avoid and then try them. Do the easiest things first, then work your way up to more challenging tasks. They become less scary as you go.

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