When Shyness Becomes Something Bigger – Social Phobia and How to Manage It
Shyness or Social Phobia?
Everyone can relate to the nervousness or embarrassment felt when we make a social faux pas like learning we have called someone by the wrong name or discovering toilet paper had been trailing from your shoe at a party. It is also normal to be nervous about giving a speech at a work event or going to a party where you don’t know anyone but the host.
Shyness, or worry or nervousness about what others think of you is a common trait, present in about 40% of the population. Social Phobia is one of the most common mental health disorders, with recent statistics from Australia suggesting that Social Phobia affects 8.4% of Australians during their lifetime. Social Phobia is a more extreme form of shyness, which is not necessarily felt as a negative attribute and therefore does not necessarily impact on quality of life. In contrast, most people with Social Phobia would say that it has caused problems in their life. However, social phobia can be treated with individual counselling.
So what is Social Phobia?
Social Phobia is a fear of one or more social situations that either results in anxiety prior, during, or after the encounter or avoidance of the situation altogether. There are a range of situations that can lead to fear and avoidance in individuals with Social Phobia, including meeting new people, parties, public speaking, eating in public, using public bathrooms, disagreeing with other people, and speaking to authority figures. People with Social Phobia fear negative social evaluation in these situations. They either worry that they will do or say something that will lead to embarrassment or that their anxiety will be visible (e.g., due to blushing or shaking). In order to be diagnosed with Social Phobia the above concerns must have been present for at least 6 months and caused substantial interference in the person’s life. This means it must interfere with an individual’s academic or job performance, social functioning, or cause the individual distress on a daily basis.
What causes Social Phobia?
Like many other psychological conditions, Social Phobia is caused by a combination of factors including genetic, prior negative social experiences (e.g., bullying), observing a family member with social anxiety, and negative thinking.
How can I overcome Social Phobia?
While normal shyness might be bothersome at times, it is less severe than Social Phobia and often does not require treatment with a psychologist. In contrast, Social Phobia will usually not improve without proper treatment.
Here are 3 tips to help you overcome shyness or Social Phobia:
- Externalise your attention. Most people with Social Phobia are highly self-aware during the social situations that they fear. They can become very focused on their own negative thinking about how they are coming across to others and they sometimes develop an image of how they think they look to others (e.g., an image of themselves sweating, blushing, or mumbling). Not only are these beliefs often inaccurate, focusing on your anxiety serves to heighten how anxious you feel and can also be distracting, meaning it is actually harder to keep up with conversation or the task at hand. Practice shifting your focus of attention outwards – so instead of focusing on how you feel/look/your negative thoughts try to focus on the person you are speaking to, what they are saying, and how they are saying it. Try to visualize the story they are telling you and imagine how it felt to be in their shoes. Not only will you feel less anxious but you will also be a more present and engaged conversationalist and your conversation partner will appreciate your interest and attentiveness.
- Catch and correct your thinking. People with Social Phobia often make unrealistic predictions about what will happen in social situations. They tend to over-estimate: 1) the probability of behaving in an embarrassing manner, and 2) the harshness of others. Ask yourself if your thinking is based on facts or if you’re making unfounded assumptions based on fear. People with Social Phobia often engage in a type of thinking called ‘Mind Reading’ where you assume you know what others are thinking of you and usually the assumptions are highly negative. The only way we can really know what others are thinking of us is to ask them. So if you catch yourself saying things like “I know that they will think I’m stupid” ask yourself if you might be Mind Reading and try to correct the thought with something more accurate. For example “last time I spoke up in a meeting my colleagues listened to my idea”.
- Overcome avoidance. It’s normal to avoid the situations we fear and while this may help us feel safer in the short term, it creates bigger problems in the long term and actually keeps the problem of Social Phobia going. This is because the negative predictions about the likelihood of social embarrassment or rejection remain untested, your social world becomes smaller, and your social skills might suffer from a lack of interaction. You might also start to feel isolated and depressed due to loneliness. Start by creating a list of all of the social situations you fear and avoid and start gradually facing them. Just like you wouldn’t overcome a fear of the water by diving in the deep end of the pool, it’s not a good idea to start overcoming avoidance in Social Phobia by giving a presentation in front of a group of 50 strangers. Start with the least anxiety-provoking situation and practice challenging your fears in that situation until you feel comfortable and confident and ready to move onto the next social activity. For example if meeting new people scares you, start by making small talk with the cashier at the supermarket and then perhaps practice saying hello to people who work in the same building as you. You might gradually work up to a final goal of striking up a conversation with someone new at a party. Meet up groups (www.meetup.com) are also a great way to meet new people who share common interests and practice social skills. You might also learn a new skill like cooking, running, or a new language in the process!
What if I need more support?
Most people with Social Phobia will require professional support from a psychologist to help them manage their symptoms and take control of their lives. The Psych Professionals has a range of psychologists who can assist children, adolescents, and adults to better manage and overcome Social Phobia and help you live the life you deserve.
This video has some helpful suggestions for improving conversations that anyone can benefit from – whether or not shyness is a problem for you: