Human beings are hardwired to desire interpersonal connection. This is one reason why social anxiety is so distressing; it prevents us from meeting this basic human need. Whether at a party, a professional function, a first date, a new class, a reunion or a local bar – we naturally want to feel comfortable in our own skin and free to be and express ourselves. Social anxiety gets in the way of all that. Instead of feeling safe, open and spontaneous, we over-think, worry, feel fearful, stay alone and remain guarded. Then we beat ourselves up for THAT. The cycle can feel endless and self-perpetuating.
Living with repeated social anxiety is one manifestation of fear-based living: fear of disapproval, fear of looking foolish and fear of not measuring up. When these fears occupy our minds, life can become very constricted and small. Fear of social interaction often leads to avoidance which makes subsequent social interactions that much more difficult – and the cycle builds upon itself. Recognition that there is a problem and longing to break out of fear-based living is the important first step in feeling better and eliminating social anxiety from our lives.
what is the cause of social anxiety?
Anxiety is a subjective experience characterized by nervousness, worry, fear and uncomfortable physical signals like sweats, racing mind, blood rushing to the head, pulse quickening, cold hands and more. While fear is thought to be a response to actual and imminent danger, anxiety is thought to be a fear-response even though no real threat or danger is present. Social anxiety is an unhelpful fear response to the experience (or even the idea) of interpersonal interaction.
Why do we develop fear of interacting with others? In helping many people with social anxiety over the years, I’ve come to see that social anxiety is a learned response. People learn to experience social anxiety when they have repeated social interactions that are unpleasant. For many people I’ve helped, these unpleasant social interactions began in their family setting where it was often not safe to express oneself or even to be oneself. When this happens, people go out into the world and, in their interpersonal interactions, they are largely guarded and/or approval seeking. Instead of having learned how to be comfortable in their own skin, people have learned that they need to perform, compensate, win approval and/or guard against being hurt. This makes social interaction highly unsatisfying and exhausting.
Many people go about their lives with repetitive internal messages/beliefs such as: it’s not safe to be yourself; you’re not good enough; you must win approval; others are better than you; something is wrong with you; others have it easier than you. When people are experiencing social anxiety, these types of thoughts are operating underneath the surface. Subconscious thinking that is negative and unhelpful is very common; it does its damage underneath the radar of ordinary conscious awareness and only gets worse with time if it is not dealt with in a serious way.
freedom from social anxiety
Social anxiety is highly treatable. Therapy helps people to see not only how the problem developed in their lives, but more importantly it helps them to more clearly see and identify the patterns of thought and action that sustain the problem in their lives. Therapy provides practical and simple tools that people can start using immediately to feel and function better.
Clients seeking help for social anxiety should feel empowered and more hopeful after only a handful of sessions. Cynicism and hopelessness slip away as people experience even a little bit of freedom from the prison of social anxiety. With time, social anxiety can definitely become a thing of the past – and being comfortable and secure within oneself during social interaction can become the new norm.
Chris Kingman | Therapy
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