Social Anxiety - Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments Explained
Social anxiety disorder is also called social phobia. It is a long-term and often overwhelming fear of social situations that can also be debilitating.
Social anxiety is a common problem that typically begins during the teenage years, and it can cause high levels of distress - greatly impacting your life for, potentially, many years if left untreated.
For some people with social anxiety, it can get better as they get older, but it is a condition that tends to not go away without specialist intervention and treatment. If you, or a loved one, are suffering from social anxiety disorder symptoms, there is a great network within the UK with a range of treatments that can help with effective social anxiety management.
Social Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Social anxiety disorder encompasses more than just shyness. While everyone has feelings of anxiety from time to time when being faced with typically anxiety-inducing situations, such as presentations or public speaking, social anxiety is a fear that does not go away. It affects everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships, and work or school life.
As stated above, occasional feelings of anxiety are a normal occurrence in human life, but those suffering from social anxiety will have excessive feelings of worry before, during, and after certain events.
Some signs of social anxiety include:
- Overly worrying about everyday activities. This includes meeting friends or strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working, and even shopping.
- Avoiding or excessively worrying about social activities like group conversations, eating around company, and parties or social gatherings.
- Constantly worrying about doing something that could be embarrassing, including physical symptoms like blushing, sweating, or appearing incompetent in front of friends or strangers.
- Finding it difficult to complete tasks when others are, or could be, watching - this may feel like you’re being watched or judged constantly
- Fears of critique, avoidance of eye contact, and/or low self-esteem, frequent symptoms of sickness, nausea, sweating, trembling, or a fast heartbeat/heart palpitations
- Suffering from panic attacks where an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety is felt - these usually only last for a few minutes but can be for longer
Many people who suffer from social anxiety are also suffering from other mental health issues. These can include depression, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), or panic disorder.
What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
While the exact cause of social anxiety is not known, current research supports the idea that it can be triggered by a number of genetic and environmental factors. Negative experiences are also said to contribute to the development of this disorder, which can include:
- Family conflict
- Sexual abuse
Abnormalities such as an imbalance of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that helps to regulate mood, may also contribute to the development of social anxiety. The amygdala, which controls fear response and feelings of anxiety, may also become overactive which could also be the trigger for social anxiety.
Anxiety disorders can also be hereditary, though researchers are not sure if they’re actually passed down through genetic factors. For example, a child may develop an anxiety disorder because they learn the behaviour of one of their parents who has an anxiety disorder.
Children can also develop social anxiety and other anxiety disorders as a result of being raised in highly controlled or overprotective environments.
What You Can Try to Overcome Social Anxiety
There are a few self-help tips that you can use in order to help reduce your social anxiety symptoms. You may find these to be useful as a first step prior to trying other treatments. This includes:
- Trying to understand more about what triggers your anxiety. This means thinking about and making note of what goes through your mind during a moment of social anxiety and how you behave in certain social situations.
- Some relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises for anxiety, can help to quell some ongoing symptoms of social anxiety.
- Try to break down the challenging situations into smaller segments, making sure to work on feeling more relaxed with each smaller part.
- Rather than assuming the worst, or attempting to guess what they’re thinking, try to focus on what people are saying plainly.
Social Anxiety Help Available in the UK
Social anxiety is a common problem in the UK, with every 6 in 100 people being diagnosed with a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) every week according to Mind. There are treatments that can help those suffering from social anxiety, so if you think you have social anxiety, and it is presently having a particularly large impact on your life, it is a good idea to get in touch with your GP for medical advice.
We completely understand that it can be difficult to ask for help and to talk about your feelings, but a GP will be aware of how many people suffer from social anxiety and do their best to put you at ease. During your GP consultation, you’ll be asked about your feelings, behaviours, and symptoms in order to discover how your anxiety reacts in social situations.
If they think your symptoms are indeed caused by social anxiety, your GP will refer you to a mental health specialist for a full assessment and what your next steps are in regards to treatment.
Social Anxiety Treatment
There are several treatments for social anxiety disorder, although results can differ from person to person. Some people only require one form of treatment, whereas others may need more than one type.
Some treatment options for social anxiety disorder include:
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
This kind of therapy focuses on how your thoughts about a certain situation can affect how you feel both physically and emotionally, as well as how you act in response to these stimuli.
This kind of therapy helps you to gradually face social situations, rather than avoiding them completely.
Group therapy helps you to learn essential social skills and techniques necessary to interact with people easier in social settings. While participating in group therapy with others who have the same fears as you, you may be helped to feel less alone in your situation. This gives you the chance to practice your newfound social skills through role-playing.
Foods such as coffee, chocolate, and sugar-filled fizzy drinks all act as stimulants which may act in a way that increases your anxiety.
Getting Plenty of Sleep
Making sure to get at least eight hours of sleep per night is a highly recommended form of anxiety reduction. Lack of sleep is proven to cause an increase in anxiety symptoms, and even worsen your symptoms of social anxiety.
If Treatments Do Not Work…
If your condition with social anxiety does not improve with the aid of therapy and lifestyle changes, your GP may prescribe anti-anxiety medications with the purpose of treating your anxiety and/or depression.
These medications will not cure social anxiety or social phobia, however, they can be used to improve your symptoms and help you to function better in your daily life. Your priority should be therapy and lifestyle changes as these kinds of medication can take up to three months or more to work effectively.
If medication is decided to be the best route for you, your provider will prescribe a low dose, and gradually increase your prescription over time, in order to avoid side effects.Some common side effects from these kinds of medications include, but are not limited to:
- Weight gain
- Upset stomach
- Lack of sexual desire
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