7 Ways to Help Someone with Social Anxiety

So this post is going to be a little different. I don’t have much to say about making or saving money. I don’t have helpful tips on how to build your blog. I have no courses or affiliates to recommend. This post is different because yesterday was a tough day for me. Yes, I said that heinous word “me” — instead of “you”. 

Because when you start a blog, it’s all about the audience, and I get that. You’re not supposed to talk about yourself because strangers aren’t particularly interested in your life. They visit your blog to read about what you can offer to them. What you can teach them, or what nuggets of wisdom you can share.

It is understandable, our time is a valuable asset, and you don’t want to waste it just reading about someone else’s crappy day. 

So if you’d like to tune out, now would be the time.

But I do have something to share, and since I’m paying for this platform, I may as well go ahead and say it. Yesterday was a difficult day to get through. But not many people will even understand why.

I was selected for a professional leadership conference at my day job. That’s good, right? Never mind the fact that I had tons of “real” work to do, piling up at my desk. And carving out 8 hours for career development sometimes isn’t entirely practical, depending on what else is on your plate.

But that was not even the real issue.

I was in a room full of 18 other people, and I’m sure most of them did not want to be there either. But they were able to do it, and it wasn’t a big deal for them. However, it was pretty much a huge deal for me. I have social anxiety. 

And it makes no sense; there’s no logic behind it (and believe me, I look for logic in EVERYTHING.) You can try to rationalize it and point out the obvious facts, but the feelings do not disappear. They lessen at some point but never quite go away entirely.

What’s Real

There is absolutely nothing to be anxious about. There’s no reason to be concerned when meeting a room full of new people. Most people are friendly, compassionate, and enjoy talking to others. How can that possibly be bad? 

Also, it’s a good business practice to actively network, build future contacts, and learn about other areas of your job, no matter what industry you’re in.

But I enter a room full of new people, and my palms immediately begin to sweat. My heart starts beating twice as fast. I feel light-headed, sometimes to the point where I feel like I may pass out. And actually, it starts way before all of that. 

The Preparation

Days prior, I begin to worry about how the whole encounter will play out. Plan how early to leave, in case there’s traffic. Figure out where the building is in case I get lost.  Find the conference room, get a seat at the back, preferably against the wall and close to the door. All this planning to make sure I’m not blindsided by the unexpected. And it’s still not enough.

I make it through the day with shallow breaths and slightly teary-eyed. Thankful for the moment the facilitator dismisses us, trembling as I gather my belongings. Grateful to be walking out the main exit into the crisp outdoors. I can breathe again, taking in big, shaky gulps of air.

And while the above description might be considered dramatic, I did that with a purpose. I’m trying to help the average person understand what it feels like to have social anxiety. 

Nothing to Fear

Most people just don’t get it. “What’s wrong with being social? It’s not like you’re standing up at a podium, giving a speech to thousands. How can you not like talking to people? So what exactly are you afraid of?”

Yep, those are all questions I’ve been asked by friends and family who don’t quite understand what my deal is. So in the spirit of providing helpful content to others, I’m taking this opportunity to offer this as a teachable moment. 

Of course, the downside is this post may not affect many people at all. So I’m guessing the majority of my readers will not find it relevant. But the upside is in the potential that this may help someone who is affected by social anxiety. Whether you know someone who has it or suffers from it yourself, the following guide can help bridge the gap to create a better understanding. 

How You Can Help

If you know someone who has social anxiety, the more you understand it, the easier it will be to assist your friend or loved one suffering from it. So here are a few quick suggestions on how you can help someone deal with their social anxiety.

Again, these are from my personal experiences — which may not apply to every situation. But I’ve been dealing with social anxiety since my early 20’s, so that’s pretty much two decades of solid experience. 

Since that time, I’ve done a lot of reading, tried multiple coping mechanisms and numerous medical options. I know what works for me. And here is what I’ve found:

Common scenarios and triggers that can contribute to a socially anxious response:

  • A room (or Zoom call) full of people, turning to look at you — being the center of attention
  • A social situation, where you can’t think of “small talk” and worry the other person may think you’re boring/weird/unworthy of their friendship
  • A packed arena (theatre, concert hall, casino, stadium) where there are lots of people and noises going on simultaneously. It’s audible stimulation overload, where you feel like you can’t breathe and need to run out of there asap
  • In a meeting, not wanting to speak up because you’re afraid you’ll be laughed at or considered unintelligent
  • (also closely related to being afraid a boss or coworker will “discover” you’re not good enough for your job, should not have received a recent promotion or accolade, and basically don’t deserve to be there)  Impostor Syndrome at its best
  • Being unable to accept a simple compliment because you feel like a “fraud”

Are all of the above situations absolutely irrational and non-fact-based? OF COURSE!! Does an individual with social anxiety know this? Yup. Does it matter? Nope, not at that particular point in time. The brain does what it does and tells the physical receptors in your body that it’s freak-out time. Let the chaos commence.

So here are 7 ways you can help someone who has social anxiety

1) Do not tell them it’s all in their head.

They already know that, and it doesn’t help the situation. Those of us who suffer from anxiety realize it’s our brain playing tricks on us. But, while the root cause is mental, the effects are very physical. 

We know it’s all in our head, but the brain is so powerful, so convincing — that the symptoms manifest in an excruciatingly real way.

Instead

Acknowledge our physical discomfort, and help us lessen the effects in whatever way possible. Ask if we’d prefer a different seat or table in a restaurant. Or if we want to step outside for a breath of fresh air. 

If another person is bombarding us with questions, help defuse the situation by taking on some of the attention. Or try to change the subject. Small efforts like this will show that you understand what’s going on and want to help make it better. And that understanding goes a long, long way.

2) Don’t tell them it’ll get easier the more they do it, whether it’s addressing a room full of people, going to a party, or sitting in a packed concert.

While that could be true in some cases, it usually isn’t.

Instead: 

Realize the whole “practice makes perfect” theory typically only works in situations where there is the desire to succeed. It’s defined in the article from The Washington Post as intrinsic motivation:“The pleasure one takes from an activity is a powerful predictor of success.”

A person with social anxiety doesn’t necessarily want to fail at these activities. In fact, they’d love to succeed and go on their merry way. But the mind is telling them they cannot move forward. 

It says, “this is not fun, this is extremely scary, and you need to get out of here as soon as possible.” So there is no pleasure — therefore, a lower possibility of success through repeated exposure.

3) Don’t sit by and ignore them if you notice they’re visibly uncomfortable.

If they’ve shared with you the fact that they have social anxiety, that means they trust you. 

So don’t mistakenly think that paying attention to them will contribute to their discomfort if you do pay attention to them. Please don’t ignore them in the hopes that their episode will pass more quickly. 

Instead: 

Let them know you’re aware they’re having trouble and will help them get through it. Knowing they’re not alone will go a long way in their return to a calm state. 

And the acknowledgement will help to create a distraction, so they’re not silently fixating on the problem. 

4) Don’t avoid hanging out with them or inviting them out.

People who have social anxiety are not anti-social. They are just emotionally unable to handle widely social situations. 

Instead:

Think of ways to involve them in social situations that don’t trigger their anxiety. Ask them what they would like to do? Where are they okay going? 

Maybe you can go to a smaller local restaurant, instead of a loud and flashy place downtown. Or perhaps you hit the matinee the week after a popular movie release instead of standing in line on opening night.

5) Don’t tell them they need to see a shrink.

Or take some meds. Or join a support group. Seeking treatment is a very personal thing. So while any or all of the above suggestions may be helpful, it depends on the individual. And not everything works for everybody. 

Instead:

Ask them what they’ve tried to alleviate symptoms and what’s been working for them. Educate yourself on options, and see if they’ve tried or had any successes with what you’ve found. And encourage them to seek out a professional to discuss what option may be best for them. 

6) Don’t accuse them of not being any fun or acting like they’re 90 years old.

This will essentially make it worse. These are the types of statements they’re afraid of receiving, so you’d just be validating their anxieties and fears. They don’t want to be like this. It’s not a choice, and they very much need your support.

Instead:

Try to put yourself in their shoes. Imagine a situation where you feel like you have no control whatsoever and feel utterly alone and miserable. You can feel better only once the situation has ended, and you can finally relax. 

Having an understanding friend available for support is so much better than going through it alone. So why would you want anyone to go through that, much less someone you care about?

7) If you know the person well and notice the symptoms have gotten worse, to the point where you fear they may be suffering from depression, don’t wait to do something.

Caring intervention is crucial. They may already believe they’re not worthy. If you add depression on top of it, self-esteem can very well plummet. No one deserves to feel this way. Ever.

Instead

Talk to them. Find out what’s going on. Tell them you care about them and recently noticed they’re having a harder time than usual. Maybe they realize this, or perhaps they’ll deny it. But it’s essential to put it out there and get the conversation started. 

Four-fifths of adults with a social anxiety disorder also suffer from some other type of mental illness at some point in their life 1. Not only does that add to the complexity in treatment, but it also makes it that much more challenging to determine what exactly is wrong and how to make it better. 

In summary 

Social anxiety is a real condition that affects your thought process and causes discomfort in social situations. It makes you fear having interactions with others and worry about things in an irrational manner.

It affects your self-confidence and can make you less likely to attend gatherings where there are many people or people you don’t know. Continuous exposure isn’t the way to make things better; sometimes, it can make it worse.

Showing understanding and support is the best way to help someone who suffers from social anxiety. If you want to learn more about social anxiety, several links below can help define it further.

If you have social anxiety, please know that you are not alone. 

If you know someone with social anxiety, I hope this guide can help you see things from their perspective. And if you’d like to leave a comment, I’d love to hear what you think. 

Robin

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, psychologist or mental health professional. The above information results from my personal experiences, opinions and research, and is for informational purposes only. This is not intended to take the place of professional medical advice. 

Helpful Links to Learn More About Social Anxiety:

https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder

https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/living-with-social-anxiety

http://socialphobia.org/social-anxiety-disorder-definition-symptoms-treatment-therapy-medications-insight-prognosis

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK327674/

The information contained in this post and on this website is for informational purposes only. The purpose of this post is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of this mental health topic. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding mental illness, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this or any website.

1 Magee WJ, Eaton WW, Wittchen HU, McGonagle KA, Kessler RC. Agoraphobia, simple phobia, and social phobia in the National Comorbidity Survey. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1996;53:159–68. [PubMed] (via https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK327674/)

post updated 9/7/18

 

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