Most of us will have experienced social anxiety in different scenarios. In fact, it’s unusual to never experience it in life. Being aware of inappropriate behavior in social situations helps foster social cohesion. Research published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry stated that 8.4% of Australians meet the criteria for social anxiety disorder at some point in their lifetime.
However, social anxiety disorder can result when these experiences become pervasive, and enduring (i.e. generalised across most social situations for more than 6 months). This severity of distress impairs our engagement with valued activities in work, school, relationships, or other areas important to us.
Social anxiety disorder is maintained by avoidance. Avoidance can take many forms. Sometimes it is staying away from social situations. In other cases, people resort to safety behaviours to feel safe and be less ‘present’ in the social interaction. Some safety behaviours include distracting oneself, avoiding eye contact and cutting short conversations. It is understandable we’d want to avoid social situations that provoke high levels of fear.
Although avoiding makes us feel safe in the short term, in the long run it maintains distress and a level of anxiety that may be out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation. We not only gradually lose the opportunity to enjoy new experiences, our isolation can cause us to feel depressed, lose skills, and ultimately erode our sense of confidence about maintaining connection.
What are some things I can do if I am having social anxiety?
To prevent the worst-case scenario from happening, a person experiencing social anxiety monitors themselves. This focuses attention on the self rather than what is happening in the moment. Unfortunately, this can paradoxically lead to more anxiety. Self-monitoring and the anxiety that goes with it is likely to reinforce social disconnection. This is because the social anxiety sufferer appears distracted or absent during the social interaction. We can learn to shift our attention from self-focused to focusing externally whilst dropping safety behaviors.
A therapist can help you to tweak an unhelpful attentional style, safety (avoidance) behaviours, and assumptions about yourself by incorporating new information that helps you update your self-image and impression of social situations. These new views can help you enjoy an otherwise interactive and connected experience with others.
Some of the things you can do to help yourself with the guidance of a therapist include:
Behavioural experiments to test negative predictions. For example, appearing sweaty on purpose and balancing evidence for the prediction that others will notice.
Anticipatory worry and post-event rumination can also be explored through reflecting on pros and cons of rehearsing before a social event, and rumination after a social event.
At the Centre for Clinical Psychology we have a team of clinical psychologists with evidence-based training and experience helping people with social anxiety and panic. We understand how challenging it can be to live with social anxiety, and we can help you to find ways to reduce the burden of social anxiety in your life. Call us if social anxiety is interfering with your life 03 9077 0122.
Clark, D. M., Wells, A. (1995). A cognitive model of social phobia. In R. Heimberg, M. Liebowitz, D. A. Hope, & F. R. Schneier (Eds.), Social phobia: Diagnosis, assessment, and treatment. New York: Guilford Press.
Leigh E, Chiu K, Clark DM (2021) Self-focused attention and safety behaviours maintain social anxiety in adolescents: An experimental study. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0247703. https://doi.org/ 10.1371/journal.pone.0247703.
Crome E, Grove R, Baillie AJ, Sunderland M, Teesson M, Slade T. DSM-IV and DSM-5 social anxiety disorder in the Australian community. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 2015;49(3):227-235. doi:10.1177/0004867414546699