By Danny Churchill, LCSW
Social anxiety has run rampant in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic made things like virtual meetings, working from home, and online classes the norm when they previously had not been utilized all that much. When such a significant emphasis is put on staying home, a fear of what is outside develops. When told that being around others is not safe, a fear of people develops. This appears to be what has happened in the years since COVID first appeared. So, let’s talk about how to address this amplified anxiety.
What is social anxiety and why has it gotten so much worse?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), social anxiety disorder is “characterized by persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others.” It is estimated that around 12% of people fit the criteria for social anxiety disorder. These social or performance situations can be a variety of different things, such as having to give a presentation at work or going to the grocery store. Social anxiety can be debilitating to the point where these situations are avoided entirely. It can result in things like job loss or severe isolation.
Social anxiety can also be closely associated with low self-esteem and come about as a result of traumatic experiences. In light of the recent pandemic, a strong emphasis was placed on staying home for an indefinite period of time. This made it seem as though the outside world was unsafe. While managing social anxiety can feel like a fruitless endeavor at times, there are steps that can be taken to get it under better control.
What steps can we take to manage social anxiety?
Social anxiety can be better managed through addressing three different areas: thoughts, behaviors, and feelings.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used to work on dysfunctions in each of these areas, but this blog will look specifically at how CBT can be useful in terms of negative thinking patterns that manifest in social anxiety. One particular intervention used by therapists to help clients challenge negative thoughts is “finding the evidence.” This challenges someone to look at the evidence for and against a particular negative thought. In many cases, there is overwhelming evidence against a negative thought as opposed to the little evidence for it.
As far as managing behaviors, exposure therapy has been effective in combating social anxiety. Exposure therapy uses techniques that allow someone to slowly expose themselves to aspects of an anxiety-provoking situation. Often the approach that is used is gradual exposure. If giving speeches is something that elicits significant anxiety, a gradual exposure approach may have someone start by simply writing a speech and then reading the speech to themselves. The next step could be to recite the speech to their reflection in the mirror followed by giving the speech to a trusted friend or family member. This approach allows someone to slowly work through the anxiety that a certain situation evokes without “flooding the system.”
To address the feelings component of social anxiety, self-compassion is important. Social anxiety is debilitating and isolating. It’s so easy to pile shame on top of guilt that may be experienced over avoiding social situations, especially when those situations are important to those you care about. This can make tackling the challenges that social anxiety presents that much harder. Engaging in practices like writing out positive affirmations and placing them around the house is a way of practicing self-compassion. Being kinder to yourself is a major step in battling anxiety.
All of these steps are just scratching the surface of what can be done to alleviate anxiety, social or otherwise. You can find a longer list of specific tips here.
If you are struggling with anxiety and think that one-on-one CBT could really help you, don’t hesitate in reaching out to us at Anchorpoint. You can fill out an online intake here, or give us a call at 412-366-1300. Our counselors are always here to support you on our healing journey!