Managing Social Anxiety When You Have to be Social

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Navigating being social at work and in your personal life when you live with social anxiety.

Don't be so shy ... so unfriendly ... so weak ... these are just a few of the misperceptions that outsiders could have about people suffering from social anxiety. But, not only is it not that simple—and, thus, not just an easy fix—it also needn't carry such negative connotations. Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a legitimate mental health condition that deserves attention, as well as understanding and compassion.

We're all faced with responsibilities that require us to be social, whether it's at work, with friends and family, or in activities that put us out in the world, like travel, errands, school and appointments. For some of us, these are just part of daily life; for others, even the idea of them brings on deep distress. In turn, that fear can impede our ability to function.

What's it like to have social anxiety? To be clear, it's more than simply the "blahs," or having a low-energy day where huddling under a blanket is preferred over going out and having to be "on." The distinctions, as described to us by Rachel VanBuskirk, LMSW, a mental health therapist at PortalPoint Counseling, are myriad.

Individuals living with SAD, she says, will likely notice that their uneasiness and worry around social situations are both intense and persistent; not just a passing feeling, but instead, lasting for months. Those with SAD may also have fears of being negatively judged or embarrassing themselves, especially when unfamiliar people or new situations are involved. They may become panicked or overwhelmed when speaking in front of others, as well, and have difficulty making eye contact or feel discomfort in being looked at. Physical sensations may also be present, including rapid heartbeat, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, stomach discomfort or nausea.

All of these difficult emotions and reactions can ultimately lead to outright avoidance, followed by noticeable, adverse effects on personal relationships, professional and/or academic performance and overall wellbeing. Self-doubt, self-criticism and negative self-image come into play here too, causing further harm to the individual.

To make matters more complicated, those who have SAD are often misunderstood. VanBuskirk reminds us that while shyness and social anxiety do share some similarities, an important difference is that social anxiety is more powerful and more pervasive. "People with social anxiety are not just acting awkward or mean; the fear of judgment or negative interpretation can make them appear withdrawn or distant. It is important to recognize that this behavior is a result of their anxiety and that this person is not being rude," she said.

SAD is also not a sign of weakness, she explained. It's a legitimate mental health disorder that can affect anyone regardless of their strength or resiliency. So, the idea of just "bucking up and facing fears" might not be realistic, even though exposure therapy can be a facet of some treatments.

With all this in mind, how does a person know when to seek a diagnosis and support? If any of the concerns and behaviors mentioned above are striking a chord, it's probably time to consult with a mental health professional. The right counselor can help those with SAD to cope with anxieties and fears, and manage symptoms as well. Keep in mind that an official diagnosis is not necessary to acknowledge that a person is suffering from social anxiety, but proper evaluation can lead to more effective treatments, whether through cognitive behavior (CBT) and cognitive restructuring, medication or a combination of these.

VanBuskirk also notes that there are certain DIY practices for managing SAD that can partner with ongoing treatment. Relaxation techniques, such as short breathing exercises, can help when approaching an uncomfortable situation. Connecting with a support system to discuss shared struggles can also be helpful. Self-care and self-kindness are also tactics. Further, challenging negative thoughts and questioning their validity—and then replacing them with positive thoughts—can be empowering.

Most important, those with social anxiety should know they don't have to simply endure it. The path to healing can come through education, patience and professional help. Counseling can provide a safe, judgment-free space to work out difficult feelings and fears—and find ways to overcome them.

Allison Kay Bannister has been a West Michigan resident since 1987 and a professional writer since 2002. A GVSU alumna, she launched her own freelance writing business in 2017. Allison is a cookie connoisseur, word nerd, aspiring gardener, and metastatic breast cancer thriver who loves traveling in Michigan and beyond, and enjoys art, world cuisine, wine, music, and making homemade preserves.

This article originally appeared in the Apr/May '24 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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