Social Anxiety Help
Larry Cohen, LICSW
Christmas and New Year’s:
A Difficult Time for the Socially Anxious
Anxiety Disorders Association of America
Holidays are stressful for many people. The months of November and December are supposed to be joyous times – getting together with family and friends, and going to parties. For the socially anxious, however, all of this can be a nightmare. But it does not have to be.
There are varying degrees of social discomfort: shyness, social anxiety, and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD, also known as social phobia). Someone who is shy may find their shyness to be an annoyance, whereas someone who suffers from SAD finds it extremely difficult, sometimes impossible, to function normally in social situations. A certain degree of shyness is perfectly normal – you are faced with a room full of people you do not know, you feel yourself withdraw from making contact – and small talk – with strangers. Most people can overcome their initial reticence, while others have a more difficult time of it.
According to the new book, Triumph Over Shyness: Conquering Shyness and Social Anxiety, written by Murray Stein, M.D. and John Walker, Ph.D., individuals suffering from social anxiety do not simply feel awkward in front of others, they often fear that they are being scrutinized and judged. Drs. Stein and Walker point out that some degree of social anxiety can be beneficial, for example, when the desire not to look foolish at a professional conference motivates an individual to familiarize himself with the topic of the conference. A person should not, however, be kept awake all night worrying about the office Christmas he will be attending the next day.
Dr. Stein has some helpful tips for people who are dreading the social interactions that come with the holidays:
Take the initiative and show your interest in others. People are particularly friendly during the holidays so take the opportunity to smile and greet people. This is a great way to practice your social skills.
Focus on the task at hand, not on those who may be watching you. People tend to be preoccupied with themselves, especially this time of year. Allow yourself to be freer in what you say and do, feel secure in the knowledge that others are not scrutinizing you.
Avoid over-planning for social activities. Fight the tendency to plan so that nothing can go wrong. Do not spend all of your time worrying about saying the right thing. Try to “go with the flow.”
Drink responsibly. There is a lot of alcohol around at holiday time. Although drinking can lessen feelings of social anxiety, it does so at a cost. Dr. Stein points out that “in small amounts alcohol can deprive you of the satisfaction of having negotiated a stressful social situation on your own. In larger amounts, it can seriously dull your senses and make it truly difficult to carry on a conversation – or remember what you said later on.” Whether you are socially anxious or not, please never drink and drive.
These tips should help you get through the holidays. Amy Wenzel, Ph.D., of the Department of Psychology at the University of North Dakota, adds that people who are socially anxious judge themselves much more harshly than others do. She suggests that individuals remember their positive strengths and attributes, and that they reward themselves for following through with holiday-related engagements.
SOCIAL ANXIETY DISORDER
Approximately 13 out of every 100 people suffers from Social Anxiety Disorder. Men and women suffer evenly. Often, symptoms begin to surface in middle or late adolescence.
As with social anxiety, the individual suffering from SAD often fears embarrassment in a social or performance situation. They are afraid that someone will notice that they are trembling, blushing or perspiring, afraid of doing something inappropriate and embarrassing themselves, or they are afraid that others will pass judgment on them. Some fear only one aspect of interaction, for example, a person may fear public speaking, but be fine in small groups at a party. Others fear more than one type of situation. What differentiates Social Anxiety Disorder from either social anxiety or shyness is the degree to which a person suffers from physical symptoms, and the extent to which these feelings interfere with an individual’s life.
Physical symptoms of SAD include:
- Gastrointestinal discomfort
- Muscle tension
People who suffer from SAD often anticipate with dread the social situations which make them anxious. They end up either enduring these activities in extreme discomfort, sometimes “escaping” when the fear becomes too intense, or avoiding them altogether. These feelings of anxiety can limit the sufferer, both personally and professionally. Often a sufferer will realize that this reaction is extreme, but will feel that there is nothing that he can do. There is help for people who have this disorder.
If you think that you have social anxiety disorder take the ADAA’s self help test, and bring the results with you to a mental health professional. If you are diagnosed with SAD there are several treatment options: cognitive behavioral therapy, relaxation therapy and techniques, medication, or a combination of therapies. Your doctor can help you decide which treatment is best for you. If, on the other hand, you feel uncomfortable in social situations, but do not think that you have SAD, try a self-help book such as Triumph Over Shyness: Conquering Shyness and Social Anxiety.
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