Over the years I have found shyness to be crippling for adolescents, men and women. Shyness is different from being introverted, where a person has a preference for quiet. Shyness is generally about a fear of being judged negatively by others in social situations. Over the next two weeks I hope to look at this neglected area.
After 30 years being treated with anti-depressants for depression Pat came for some psychological therapy. He described being sober five years. In a comprehensive assessment I determined Pat’s original problem as that of social anxiety. He used alcohol to mask his shyness and fear and over time developed an addiction. Now he is off meds, not depressed, understands social anxiety and is actively managing it rather than it managing him.
Social anxiety or social phobia is very common. It is the persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which one is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others, provoking intense anxiety.
Impact on The Individual
Individuals who experience social anxiety have a stronger than usual desire to make a good social impression. Unfortunately, they also fear that they are not as good socially as other people and will fail to come up to an acceptable standard of social behaviour – that they will not make the favourable impression they so crave.
People with social anxiety have a very common thinking error called ‘mind reading’ where they often believe that other people think poorly of them, that others are judging them in a critical fashion or that they are behaving in ways that others find unacceptable or ridiculous.
Thinking this leads to intense self-consciousness and feelings of shame and embarrassment. It can prompt the avoidance of social situations, wearing excessive make-up for women with a fear of blushing, or dark clothing to mask a perception of sweating excessively.
Those with social anxiety experience a wide range of unpleasant symptoms, from muscle tension, increased heart rate and dizziness to nausea, dry mouth, and breathlessness.
Of particular concern to them are the visible signs of anxiety such as blushing, perspiring, shaking and stammering. The socially anxious individual fears these could be observed by others who may judge them as unacceptable or in some way ridiculous. Essentially social anxiety can be understood as an intense fear of embarrassment.
The Nightmare of the Social Situation
The range of social situations that may provoke anxiety varies from eating in public, public speaking, expressing an opinion to a group, or may involve almost all social situations.
Some fear engaging in ‘small talk’ while others fear structured situations such as reading in front of others e.g. best man’s speech.
Individuals tend to either avoid or endure with severe distress these feared situations. Because the anxiety is so intense and distressing I can understand avoidance. As individuals’ social contact gets smaller their life can get small and depression may emerge. Others such as Pat turn to alcohol in an attempt to ease social discomfort, leading to alcohol misuse .
Most individuals with social anxiety have jobs well beneath their capabilities because of the nightmare of job interviews, of working in a job with a lot of public contact or the dread of being promoted to a position of authority, or that involves meetings or presentations.
Next week I will look at treatment options. See www.socialanxietyireland.com.