What is social phobia?
Social phobia (or social anxiety) is the fear of situations where there is a social purpose, crowds or the need to converse with others. The fear and anxiety is normally around being judged negatively and being evaluated by other people, and this prevents people from being able to do the things they want to do and holds them back. Many people occasionally worry about social situations, but someone with social phobia will excessively worry before, during and after a social situation.
People with social anxiety may be perceived as being shy, quiet, withdrawn, inhibited, unfriendly, nervous, aloof, and disinterested. Paradoxically, people with social anxiety want to make friends, be included in groups, and be involved and engaged in social interactions. Social anxiety is more than shyness and is an intense fear that can affect your daily activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life.
You may have social anxiety if you:
- dread everyday activities, such as being introduced to people, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping, meeting strangers
- avoid or worry a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company, being center of attention and parties
- always worry about doing something you think is embarrassing, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent
- find it difficult to do things when others are watching
- fear criticism or being teased, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem
- experience physical symptoms such as feeling sick, sweating, trembling or palpitations
- have panic attacks (overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety)
What are the causes of social phobia?
Cognitive and behavioural therapy (CBT) helps us to understand our issues by breaking them into five smaller parts – Situation, Thoughts, Emotions, Physical Sensations and Behaviour. These five parts are normally interconnected and maintain the problem.
Using this CBT model, we can explain some of the common signs of social phobia:
How can we help?
The symptoms experienced in social phobia are maintained with the unhelpful thoughts about others being negatively judgmental, avoiding situations, making excuses to get out of something, or by relying on safety behaviours such as planning before attending an event or hiding behind someone who is more chatty. People experiencing social anxiety, often spend a lot of time concentrating on themselves, focusing on their physical sensations (i.e. sweating, blushing) and their behaviour (i.e. being quiet). The increased self-focus feeds the anxiety, and reinforces the thoughts of “others can see I’m going red” and “I will embarrass myself”. Avoidance in such situations can offer temporary relief, however does not make the problem go away.
You can overcome social anxiety by practicing situational exposure work, where you gradually put yourself in social situations that cause the symptoms of anxiety. The important thing is to go at a pace that suits you, whilst ensuring that the exposure is enough to challenge your negative symptoms.
Mindset Rethink can help you to:
- Increase awareness and understanding of social phobia
- Identify and set specific and manageable goals
- Explain the CBT model to you and how it can help with social phobia
- Evaluate and challenge your negative thoughts
- Reduce internal focus during social interactions
- Remove avoidant and safety behaviours
- Generate a list of feared situations and plan for graded exposure work
- Promote general well-being
Complementary therapy techniques
One of the key features of social phobia is the use of safety behaviours, where people believe it “helps” the anxiety to reduce or go away in social situations. In reality, this maintains the anxiety because you rely on such behaviours to cope temporarily, but the fear, for example of embarrassing yourself in front of others, is still there.
Dropping or reducing safety behaviours can help you to gather evidence and understand that there is no real danger, that your anxiety is based on a thought/feeling, and you can cope without using them.
Think of a safety behaviour which you use in a social situation. It could be anything i.e. having a bottle of water with you at all times or chewing gum when in a room full of people. Set yourself a task where you stop using the safety behaviour for a period of time or for a particular situation. After doing the task, reflect on how it has impacted on your physical state, your emotions and your thoughts. Engage in this activity at lease once daily.
You may want to gradually increase the time and vary the situations where you drop the safety behaviours, until you notice that you feel less anxious about not using them.