Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a fear of social interactions where there is the possibility of negative evaluation. If you have SAD, you are worried that you will embarrass yourself and that this could lead to others rejecting you. The anxiety will cause you a high degree of distress and you will often avoid social situations because of the fear.
It is important to remember that most people have some degree of anxiety in social situations. It is completely normal and understandable. We are a social species and we are highly attuned to our standing within a group, so it is natural that you would be concerned about being viewed poorly. Where it becomes problematic, and this is true for people with SAD, is that the anxiety leads them to avoid more and more situations, thereby limiting their potential for social connection or happiness.
If you suffer from SAD, here are a few things you can do to reduce your anxiety:
Exposure is the key. The treatment for all anxiety disorders is based on one basic principle: If you expose yourself to your feared situation enough times, the anxiety will go down. This is a fact and it does work. You need to be on the look out for opportunities to challenge your social fears. Maybe it's as simple as making eye contact with the bus driver, or asking a question in class, or sitting towards the center of the waiting room rather than along the periphery. Keep pushing yourself. What you will find is that these situations are not as scary as you anticipated and you will slowly build confidence in yourself.
You must identify SAD thoughts. Part of what maintains SAD are the irrational, catastrophic thoughts. Typical thoughts include: I will embarrass myself, nobody will talk to me, everyone will look at me. You can tell they are irrational because they are generally stark predictions about the future that are entirely negative and absolute. You need to start paying attention for these thoughts. Once you notice them, start to label them to yourself, "Oh, there is that SAD thought again." You can also say, "I'm having the thought right now that I will embarrass myself." These will help distance you from the thought.
You must challenge SAD thoughts. Once you have started to identify the thoughts that maintain your SAD, you need to start refuting them. So the irrational thought "Everyone will look at me" can be challenged in several ways. The first is the word "everyone". You could say to yourself, in a slightly mocking voice, "Really, EVERYONE will be looking at me?" What you are mocking is the irrational thought. By slightly mocking it, you are taking away some of its power. You could also say to yourself, "I'm going to reality test that thought and look around right now to see if EVERYONE is looking at me". Invariably, hardly anyone will be paying attention. This too takes its power away.
Accept yourself. So much of what fuels social anxiety fears is the thought "What if they don't like my clothes, my hair, my smile, my taste in music, my humour, my weight..?" What socially anxious people try to do is change themselves to fit some notion they have of what others want or expect of them. This creates constant anxiety because who knows what people are thinking or expecting of us. The healthiest thing to do is to stop trying to please other people and work on accepting yourself for who you are, faults and all. If people don't like it, that is OK, they are entitled to their opinion. Keep practicing this mantra when you are out in public, "They can think what they want. They can think what they want."
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