Social Anxiety (Social Phobia)
Social Anxiety or Social Phobia is the experiencing of intense anxiety in social interactions. People suffering from this form of anxiety become highly self-conscious and feel that they are being judged or appraised negatively by those around them. Being socially anxious can severely limit our ability to form friendships or find a partner. Because it often leads to feelings of inferiority, embarrassment and low confidence social anxiety can have an adverse effect on our performance at work as well as preventing us from taking up hobbies or interests that we might otherwise like to try out. As a result, depression and low mood symptoms can often accompany this form of anxiety.
The physical symptoms of social anxiety include blushing, sweating, trembling/shaking, dry mouth, tension. Because these symptoms are thought to be visible the sufferer may feel convinced that their anxiety is apparent to the people they are interacting with and sending out embarrassing signals that seem to say: "Hey look at me everyone I'm blushing!!". To alleviate this "visible" anxiety, attempts are often made to try to hide the physical symptoms but in reality can actually have the opposite affect of drawing attention to them. For example, a person who feels themselves to be going red during a conversation might try to cover up blushes by holding a hand over their face and turning away from the other person - behaviours which are likely to be more noticeable than if the sufferer had been able to tolerate the "redness" and stay engaged in the conversation.
Some of the situational triggers for social anxiety include:
Avoidance and Self-Focusing
Avoidance Behaviours and Self-Focusing or Self-Monitoring are the two main characteristics of social anxiety. A socially anxious person may use Avoidance behaviours to prevent themselves from feeling embarrassed or humiliated in social situations that feel threatening . This might include getting out of attending a work meeting or phoning in sick. The thought of going to a party and meeting new people is often anticipated with fear and an invitation might therefore be declined. If the person does attend then leaving early - escaping - may provide temporary relief but in the long-term is likely to prove unhelpful. When escape is not possible social interactions are often deeply uncomfortable for the individual and create feelings of being trapped. Self-Focusing or Self-Monitoring is a cognitive response to feeling socially anxious in which the individual scrutinises their thoughts, feelings and behaviours in the belief that these are obvious to other people and are being judged negatively during interactions. Because a socially anxious person is constantly preoccupied with imagining what they thinkmust be running through the other person's mind they likely to miss out on opportunities for making new friendships or relax enough to enjoy an event. In this way, social anxiety can keep a person stuck inside their head ruminating on a world of anxious, self-critical thoughts .
How Avoidance and Self-Focusing keep social anxiety going
The difficulty with Avoidance Behaviours is that, on the face of it, they actually appear to work by reducing the immediate affects of anxiety. For example, if we feel anxious during a business meeting we might try not to be noticed by sitting at the back or by "hiding" away in a corner. This might feel helpful in containing our anxiety so long as we can stay "hidden" but we are likely to feel even more anxious if we are subsequently asked a question or have to make a presentation. When we come to rely upon avoidant behaviours in this way we make it more and more difficult to cope with future social interactions. The result long-term is that we never get to face up to our fears and learn how to manage our anxiety in social situations. Self-Focusing causes the individual to monitor how they appear or anything they say or do doing during social interactions in case this makes them appear to be incompetent, inadequate, uninteresting, stupid etc. The fear of looking foolish or feeling embarrassed means the sufferer feels endlessly self-conscious. Because the social occasions is perceived as potentially threatening they are unable to relax let alone enjoy. Responding to every new social interaction in this defensive, on-guard mode keeps the problem going and does nothing to resolve it. Psychologist refer to this as a maintenance factor.