What is social anxiety?
If you have an extreme fear of being judged in social situations, if you have a sadistic focus on all the things that can go wrong—nervously blurting out everything you never wanted to say aloud just to fill conversational lulls, or if you scrutinize all the awkward things you think you did or said after the fact, you could have social anxiety. Social anxiety is the number one mental health issue in North America, affecting 15 million American adults. A little social anxiety is normal for everyone, but when it becomes abnormal, it’s a self-serving narcissist hell-bent on your full attention. Social anxiety is especially tough to manage because it’s not just one thing. And it’s a bit contradictory—you have a general distaste for peopling, but also an internal need for … people. But on your terms, and in limited doses.
Social anxiety is contagious. Sort of. Researchers are learning that anxiety disorders run in families, and that they have a biological basis, much like allergies and diabetes. Anxiety disorders typically develop from a complex set of risk factors that include genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life experiences. Anxiety, which is equally common among men and women, typically begins around age 13. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those with a disorder receive treatment.
All of this supports a rationale for keeping a blank social calendar from an underground doomsday bunker. However, you can get out there and actually enjoy it! Here’s how.
Throw a counterpunch
Do not give in to what the anxiety is driving you to do. Instead, acknowledge it, and say, “Hey, inner angst, I’m the shot caller and I came to party!” Whatever it is that counters the anxiety, do it. Each time you parry your fear, you are “rewiring” your brain and weakening anxiety’s hold on you. According to Robert Leahy, PhD, author and clinical professor of psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School, social anxiety that’s left untreated is associated with an increased risk for alcohol abuse, depression, loneliness, decreased occupational advancement and the increased likelihood of remaining single. That’s no way to live! And that’s why it’s so important to feel and face your anxiety. You can actually do things while anxious and realize that nothing bad happens. (These mini meditations can relieve anxiety along the way.)