The feeling of discomfort before a performance, feeling your heart beating faster when interacting with strangers, or blushing when you are the center of attention- all of these are feelings that most people are familiar with. While they are not pleasant, they are often manageable. The question is, at what point do these feelings become a problem?
Shyness and social anxiety are two different things. Shyness is normal and something that most people have experienced (do not think that shyness always shows – people can be pretty good at hiding it). Shyness is when you feel uncomfortable in social situations and at times a little bit anxious. However, you can still do most things that need to be done- communicate, go out, etc. Some situations may be more difficult than others – for example, when going on a date you may be more anxious than usual, but you are able to handle it. As a shy and perhaps introverted person, you may not enjoy social situations very much, but you cope with them well most of the time. And you do not miss out on important life events because of it.
Social anxiety (also called social phobia in diagnostics) on the other hand is a much more serious matter, which is also classified as an anxiety disorder. It is serious because it significantly affects a person’s quality of life. Because of this, a person may not do things that they really should or would like to do. In an extreme case, it can lead to a person not leaving their house anymore.
When a public performance is coming up, there are few people who do not feel uncomfortable or anxious before it. However, a person with severe anxiety worries about the performance for weeks or even months in advance. They cannot sleep, their appetite might disappear, they might experience extremely unpleasant physical symptoms (difficulty breathing, shaking, profuse sweating, tightness in the chest, heavy heart palpitations, etc.). These symptoms are usually long-lasting, meaning they do not go away with time, but can get worse. Thinking rationally, they can understand that there is no real reason for feeling this way, but they cannot control their fear. It occurs regardless of thought, and this fear may not go away even after the feared event occurs. While public speaking is perhaps something that you do not necessarily have to do, or at least not often, in the case of severe social anxiety even much simpler social situations are a big ordeal.
There are three main factors to consider regarding social anxiety or social phobia:
- The person does not cope with their age-appropriate daily life. Perhaps the person does not go to the shops, does not leave the house, stays away from work or school, completely avoids all kinds of social situations, withdraws from friends, or isolates themself.
- The person has strong feelings of fear and very unpleasant physical symptoms in social situations or when thinking about them.
- The person has avoidant behavior – all situations that require the slightest social interaction are excluded. In other words, unfortunately, most of the situations that occur in life.
What else could indicate social anxiety?
- If you feel very uncomfortable when you have to communicate, start a conversation, talk on the phone, go shopping, etc.
- If you avoid situations that have anything to do with communication or being with others.
- If you often worry that you will do something that you think is embarrassing (blushing, sweating, looking incompetent or stupid, etc.).
- If you are uncomfortable being with others or doing things when you are with others because you may think that they are constantly judging you. And this causes you great fear and tension.
- If you are very sensitive to criticism and are constantly afraid of it.
- If you avoid eye contact at all costs.
- If you develop a strong sense of fear in social situations, which can sometimes manifest as a panic attack.
When should you seek help?
Firstly, do not be afraid to seek help. Social anxiety is a problem for more people than you might think. So, your concern is not something that is unheard of or embarrassing for a professional. It is estimated that more than one in ten experience this unpleasant condition. There are solutions to overcome social anxiety, however it is difficult to find the solutions and put them into practice alone. Sometimes you may need therapy. Sometimes, when social anxiety is severely impacting your entire life, medication is also used to reduce anxiety. You also need to know that it will take time - you can gradually overcome your fears by taking small steps and using helpful techniques.
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