Introversion or Social Anxiety?
Socializing is not easy for everyone. Some individuals find social interactions, like parties and networking events, terrifying. However, there is a significant difference between introversion and social anxiety. An estimated 30%-50% of the population is genetically predisposed to be bashful, reserved and shy. Crowds exhaust them and they prefer calmer environments to regain their energy. Contrary to popular belief, introverts can be confident, accomplished and motivated individuals. They simply perform better in small, familiar social circles.
Social anxiety, on the other hand, is different. Individuals who suffer from it fear being judged, scrutinized and evaluated by others. They remain self-conscious and easily get embarrassed. Anxiety paralyzes them in social situations and prevents them from forging connections with others. They can come across as shy, aloof, unfriendly, disinterested, and even rude. Yet, like everyone, they desire good friendships and meaningful relationships. Social Anxiety Disorder affects approximately 12% of the population. Some people experience it on a greater scale compared to others, and introverts remain more prone to it. Knowing how to manage your social anxiety can greatly improve your quality of life and reduce the physical and mental distress that accompanies it.
Recognize the Symptoms
In social situations, you might recognize anxiety in young children when they cry, have temper tantrums, cling on to you, make strange, or refuse to speak and engage with others. Most will outgrow this phase. Typically, signs of social anxiety disorder begin in the early to mid-teen years. It can also manifest itself in adulthood.
Everyone experiences a normal level of nervousness in new situations. But people suffering from social anxiety experience heightened tension when they get introduced to new people. They worry excessively about humiliating themselves and dread it when others notice their blushing, sweating or stammering. Speaking to people in authority can cause significant distress, as does public speaking. For many, job interviews become terrifying, nerve-wracking exercises. They will spend hours analyzing and criticizing their own behaviour afterwards, expecting the worst outcome from any social interaction.
The physical symptoms of social anxiety range from mild to severe, and can include a rapid heartbeat, trembling, upset stomach and nausea, dizziness or lightheadedness, muscle tension and memory blanks. In extreme cases, these mental and physical symptoms get very burdensome to handle. This is when some individuals go into seclusion. When your social anxiety interferes with daily routines at work, school and elsewhere, it may spiral down to a host of other problems. Many individuals deny they need support at this stage. However, anxiety spectrum disorders remain the most common presenting condition at psychotherapy clinics. A trained therapist will recognize the symptoms and have the experience to help you.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
The exact cause of this disorder is not entirely clear. However, like many mental disorders, it depends on a variety of factors, including your physiology and environment. The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure located deep inside your brain, manages your “flight and fight” reaction. It modulates your body’s response to danger and fear. An overactive amygdala can increase anxiety, but environmental factors can play a role, too.
For example, children and adolescents who experience bullying and teasing at a young age also remain susceptible to social anxiety disorders. These adverse experiences can impact their brains’ foundational wiring and consequently predispose them to anticipate the worst-case scenario in social situations.
Treatments for Social Anxiety Disorder
When left untreated, individuals suffering from social anxiety disorder tend to exhibit low self-esteem and challenged social skills. They may have trouble excelling academically as well as finding and holding on to jobs. Negative self-talk, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts can be familiar companions to this condition. Fortunately, people with social anxiety disorder respond remarkably well to evidence-based psychotherapy treatments.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy often referred to simply as CBT, has emerged as one of the most successful treatments for social anxiety disorders. With the help of a trained therapist, CBT allows you to change how your brain thinks. Consequently, you rewire your beliefs, feelings and behaviour to bypass the negative neural pathways that trigger anxiety. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your physician may prescribe SSRI medications to support your therapy.
In addition, your therapist may combine your treatment with systematic desensitization, to acclimatize you gradually to your social fears. They can deploy multiple strategies like mindfulness and deep breathing exercises to reduce the impact of your anxiety response. Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) can support you with cultivating an accepting attitude towards your anxiety while you move forward with your life.
Living Day to Day
During the initial phase of your treatment, your therapist will train you to manage the paralyzing symptoms of your social anxiety. The long term goal, however, is to equip you with skills to function, day-to-day. Practicing assertiveness, making direct eye contact and accepting social invitations may feel very uncomfortable, initially. With your therapist as your coach, you will learn to implement these, step-by-step into daily living. To that end, you may find it invaluable to put your experiences to paper in order to monitor negative thoughts that drag you back into old patterns. This type of journaling also provides you with a tangible format for measuring and celebrating your progress.
Learning to Trust Yourself
Even after you become stronger and more confident in managing your anxiety, certain social events could remain uncomfortable. This is perfectly normal. Your therapist will help you understand the genesis of your reactions to help you cope with and manage intense emotions. Most importantly, you will develop the skills to trust yourself and discern your social needs.
Sometimes, you will need to step out of your comfort zone to connect. And other times, it will be alright to give yourself permission to avoid large, noisy parties with a polite and diplomatic response like, “I have other plans.” Your new skills will help you feel less inhibited in social situations. They will buoy you through essential gatherings like business meetings and family get-togethers. Ultimately, all of this will allow you to build authentic connections and reclaim the quality of your life.
About The Authors
Rebecca Loucks MSW, RSW is a Registered Social Worker and managing director at Beaches Therapy Group, serving clients for over 10 years. We have helped hundreds of individuals manage their anxiety symptoms through a blend of psychotherapy treatments. Let’s have a discussion about how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.
Isabella Bergagnini is an intern at Beaches Therapy Group with a B.A. in Psychology. She is looking forward to graduating in August 2020 from the Master’s Level of Psychology Program at Adler Graduate School (M.Psy Candidate). Her internship hours contribute towards her goal to register with the College of Psychologists.