Anxiety: Social anxiety

Most of us at some point may feel self-conscious and anxious during social situations. Perhaps when talking to someone who appears very confident or to the good-looking person at the local coffee shop. However, some people can experience continuous self-consciousness and anxiety before and during social interactions. When social anxiety becomes persistent and distressing it is known as Social Phobia. International studies suggest that Social Phobia is one of the most common mental health difficulties, with up to 13% of the population experiencing it at some point in their lives. New Zealand research indicates that 5.1% of adults suffer from Social Phobia over any 12 month period.

Essentially, social anxiety is driven by beliefs the person holds, such as they will say or do something embarrassing or make a fool of themselves; that others are thinking about or judging them negatively; or that there is something wrong with their appearance. Understandably, such beliefs lead to the person focusing on themselves in social situations rather than on the person they’re talking to. This increased self-consciousness increases feelings of anxiety and embarrassment, and unpleasant, but harmless, physical responses such as feeling hot, sweaty, shaky, and blushing. Naturally, when people fear the worst in social situations they tend to avoid those situations. Alternatively, they may face the social situation but do things to prevent their worst-case scenarios from occurring. This might include avoiding eye contact by looking away or wearing sunglasses, rehearsing what they are going to say, using alcohol for “Dutch courage”, wearing make-up to hide blushing, and doing things to make them feel less obvious like sitting in a corner or not asking questions. While these behaviours may seem helpful at the time, they actually maintain social anxiety rather than reducing it. For example, try rehearsing what you are going to say to someone while you are talking to them – we become distracted and in turn give the impression that we are not interested in the other person. Similarly, avoiding eye contact may give the impression that we are rude. Simply avoiding social situations means that you don’t get to find out that things can go well!

Fortunately, there is an effective treatment for Social Phobia. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective in treating and reducing social anxiety. CBT is a practical therapy that focuses on the here and now and encourages people to gradually let go of behaviours that are maintaining anxiety. This includes decreasing avoidance and reducing unhelpful behaviours such as limited eye contact, and adapting the way we think about social situations and ourselves. Further, CBT aims to reduce self-consciousness by developing the ability to focus on the person you are talking with and losing yourself in conversation, rather than being focused on focused on the impression you believe you are giving.


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