Do you get a little nervous when you’re around a big group of people? That’s a natural worry for a lot of people. If your reaction extends past mildly uncomfortable and you find yourself experiencing panic attacks, self-medicating, avoiding social situations at all costs or acting in other ways that are detrimental to your health and life, then you may be experiencing social anxiety.
Exactly What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety disorder, as defined by the diagnostic criteria set forth in the DSM-V, is a persistent, ongoing and chronic fear of at least one social situation where you’re around unfamiliar people. You feel embarrassed, anxious or fearful. Your reaction to the situation doesn’t change – you’re always anxious and it’s severe, up to the point of (but not necessarily always including) panic attacks.
With social anxiety disorder, you know your fear is unreasonable or out of proportion to the social situations, but you can’t manage to shake it or cope with it no matter how hard you try. You’ll go out of your way to avoid the situation or you’ll be in distress while going through it. At the same time, avoiding it, anticipating it or experiencing it is detrimental to your ability to function – you could lose your job, miss out on schoolwork, lose friends, upset family and/or disappoint yourself.
Social anxiety disorder can last six or more months and it isn’t due to an underlying medical condition, a side effect of another medication and isn’t the result of substance abuse.
How is Social Anxiety Treated?
There’s no cure for social anxiety disorder, but it is treatable. Symptoms are managed by learning coping mechanisms to lessen anxiety and fear. Cognitive behavioral therapy (“talk therapy”), dialectical behavioral therapy or exposure therapy are all used to help combat the symptoms of social anxiety or get to the root cause of it. In certain cases, medication can help you work through your fears, and when combined with therapy, can help you make progress in combating social anxiety disorder.
How Do I Get Help?
It’s extremely rare that a person is able to successfully manage social anxiety alone. If you’re looking for help, contact your local mental health care provider about your options. If you don’t currently have a mental health services provider or don’t know where to start, ask your general practitioner for a referral or advice in finding help – they should be able to point you in the right direction. It may take some work and multiple tries to find a therapist or other service provider that works well with you, so don’t get discouraged if the first provider you try doesn’t feel like a good fit.
In addition to seeking the help of a licensed therapist, counselor, psychiatrist and/or psychologist, it can help to make use of other resources available to you. Books, podcasts and social forums like SocialAnxietySupport.com can all be valuable tools in learning to live with and work through social anxiety disorder. While resources are not a substitute for qualified professional help, they can give you some insight into what coping mechanisms may work for you, ways to deal with your anxiety on a daily basis and a gentle, non-triggering way to connect with others so you feel less alone – all of which are important when you’re living with social anxiety.