It is normal to feel nervous in some social situations. Many people get butterflies before giving a presentation or before new people. But for people who have social anxiety, daily interactions can cause debilitating symptoms. Now that social distancing has limited all our social lives, how are those with social anxiety impacted?
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
People with social anxiety are fearful of social interactions and are particularly afraid of embarrassment, disapproval, or rejection when dealing with others in a social setting. This can be when talking in front of a group or meeting people one-on-one. What is anxiety-provoking for one person may be different for the next. And those with social anxiety often experience intrusive negative thoughts about what others think, in addition to intense physical symptoms of anxiety. Social anxiety also creates a fixation on oneself while in the presence of others.
Physical symptoms of anxiety can include: fast heartbeat, trembling, sweating, upset stomach, dizziness, and muscle tension, to name a few.
For many, the go-to strategy for dealing with social anxiety is avoidance. If you never put yourself in a challenging situation, you will not get anxious. And the pandemic is creating a lot of natural avoidance.
How Covid Impacts Social Anxiety
The pandemic has significantly changed or limited our social interactions. And physically distancing due to COVID means that those with social anxiety can avoid interacting with others. For some, this can provide short-lived relief.
But what is most important to keep in mind is that relief is only short-term. And when we avoid doing something, we are afraid of, it only strengthens our fear. Avoidance reinforces that what we are avoiding is not safe. And we want to do the opposite; to teach our brain that the activity is safe, so we can overcome it. Social distancing can strengthen anxiety about social interactions and in some cases, it has led to newly developed social anxiety.
Social anxiety is a treatable condition, even during a pandemic. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are trying to manage social anxiety.
Challenge Your Anxious Thoughts
Facing and challenging negative thoughts can be a valuable tool for helping social anxiety. Identify the anxious thoughts that come to mind when you think or about or engage in social interactions. People with social anxiety are often employing cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are habitual ways of thinking that are typically inaccurate and negatively biased.
With social anxiety, these distorted thoughts maybe something like, “I will make a mistake” or “people will think I’m stupid.” If you challenge these thoughts, you are coming up with an alternative. In these situations, ask yourself, “what is actually true in this moment” and look for facts, instead of distortions. Once you get better at challenging anxious thoughts, you can try to practice putting yourself in anxiety-provoking environments.
Although it can be tempting to avoid any social or performance-related situations, it is important to put yourself in challenging situations. The best way to do this is to set up a hierarchy of social situations based on how much anxiety they can cause. Start with the lowest level of anxiety and work your way up.
With the pandemic restrictions in place, it can be challenging to accomplish this. And if you do not have in-person social events to participate in, start with virtual social situations. For instance, if you are working on public speaking, Toast Masters, and other groups like it have online meetings. For some, even seeking out online social situations to practice with can provoke anxiety. Start with small steps and work your up to the most challenging circumstances. And remember that avoidance just reinforces the fear.
Therapy can be highly effective in treating social anxiety and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is especially helpful in treating this type of anxiety. CBT teaches you different ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving around situations that provoke fear.
At DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy, we use CBT and we also use EMDR to help with social anxiety. EMDR therapy can treat social anxiety by working on the difficult memories of past social events and allowing you to process them and find a new way of thinking about these moments.
If you are debilitated by social anxiety and it’s impacting your daily life, it may be time to seek outside help. At DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy, we are happy to have a free consultation to see how we can help you.
Annie Miller is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in the Washington DC area. Annie specializes in working with insomnia (CBT-i), trauma (EMDR), teen mental health, anxiety disorders, and chronic pain. Interested in learning more about Anxiety Treatment? Check out DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy’s Anxiety Treatment Page.