If you’ve ever felt like an overwhelming sense of stress over the idea of social interaction, or watched others effortlessly make friends while you struggled with introductions, you aren’t alone – far from it. Living with social anxiety can be a frustrating and stressful experience, and more people than you might think are living with it now. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, and social anxiety is one of its most common forms.1 Managing social anxiety has been a focus of scientific research for decades now, and researchers have made a lot of progress. Anxiety solutions are readily available, and support is always available.
What Exactly is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder (commonly abbreviated as SAD) has a broad scope of definitions, symptoms, and effects. In general, “people with social anxiety disorder fear and avoid the scrutiny of others,” worried that they will do or say something that will embarrass or humiliate them.2 This does not mean that the individual does not crave companionships with other people, but rather that actively seeking out friendships feels difficult or impossible.2 Unlike general shyness, social anxiety can manifest in stress that leads to physical symptoms. Elevated heart rate, lightheadedness, stomach pain, and breathlessness in response to social situations are all possible reactions.3
A lot of research has gone into understanding how anxiety works so that doctors can prescribe effective treatments. In 2017, an article published in Child Psychiatry and Human Development examined the relationship between generalized anxiety and social anxiety in children. The authors found that children with social anxiety tested similarly to children with generalized anxiety, and suggested that the two disorders share “similar underlying processes.”4 Unfortunately, this means that the cause of social anxiety is also unknown. Many neuroscientists believe that genetics play a part, but the true cause is elusive,5 which makes the disorder difficult to prevent. Fortunately, it can still be treated.
Social Anxiety Solutions and Management
The most important thing to know is that social anxiety is manageable. You can get scientifically-proven help that can improve your quality of life. In a 2018 study, for example, researchers from the University of Sao Paulo’s Anxiety Disorders Program commented that “psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, or both are the fundamentals of social anxiety disorder (SAD) treatment.” The same study compared the experiences of participants who received cognitive behavioural therapy and prescribed medication with those who only received one or the other, and found that while both were effective, the participants who used both saw the best results.6
If “cognitive behavioural therapy” sounds intimidating, it’s not as dramatic as it sounds – it means scheduled conversations with a mental health counsellor about stressful life experiences.7 Reaching out to a doctor or therapist is a great first step, in whatever way feels most comfortable for you. Emails and webforms are a great way to initiate contact with minimal social interaction. Cognitive behavioural therapy also allows for flexibility in practice, with different methods and experiences to suit unique individual needs.8
Depending on where you live, a number of help lines are also available. If you call one, an anonymous, trained professional will answer the phone and listen to you. Resources like Anxiety Canada and Mental Health America can be great places to quietly take your first step.
A doctor or therapist can also prescribe medications and therapies as needed to help you manage your social anxiety. For some, however, taking medication is a scary concept. Fortunately, a healthy lifestyle can go a long way as well. Mindfulness practices can help to reduce stress and improve your daily living. Try meditation, go for short walks, and consider yoga or other exercises to help clear your head and reduce stress. Even the simple act of taking a few minutes to breathe deeply can have amazing effects. You can check out Very Well Mind's great guide for simple but effective techniques.9 Depending on your comfort level, you can do these activities with others or alone, using pre-recorded video tutorials on or offline. At eSmartr, we see mindfulness practices as being among the most important ways you can take care of yourself – it’s why our compression sleeves, designed with Cognitive Boost Technology™, are designed to promote mindfulness without drugs or side effects. When it comes to managing social anxiety, a good headspace will go an especially long way.
Social anxiety is not easy to live with, but no one is alone in living with it; it is a common and well-understood disorder that a great number of people are managing and living with every day. Treatments, medications, and lifestyle choices can go a long way towards improving the quality of life for anyone with an anxiety disorder. Remember that even small steps constitute progress and all progress is good! You might be amazed at how much help is available for you to overcome your struggles and achieve some well-deserved peace of mind.
2. Stein, M., Stein, D. Social anxiety disorder, The Lancet, 371,(9618), 1115-1125 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60488-2.
4. Hearn, C.S., Donovan, C.L., Spence, S.H. et al. What’s the Worry with Social Anxiety? Comparing Cognitive Processes in Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 48, 786–795 (2017). https://doi-org.library.sheridanc.on.ca/10.1007/s10578-016-0703-y
6. Bernik, M., Corregiari, F., Savoia, M. G., Barros Neto, T. P. D., Pinheiro, C., & Neto, F. L. (2018). Concomitant treatment with sertraline and social skills training improves social skills acquisition in social anxiety disorder: A double-blind, randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE, 13(10), e0205809.