Social Anxiety Disorder
It is only natural to feel a bit self-conscious or nervous while on stage or speaking in public. However, if such situations invoke intense fear or panic attacks, these may be symptomatic of a condition called social anxiety disorder. The symptoms of social anxiety disorder include shyness, as well as ‘general’ anxiety around tasks such as ‘normal’ conversations and public speaking. What may seem like an easy task for most people, may be difficult, if not impossible for someone with social anxiety disorder to perform.

It is common to confuse ‘everyday nervousness’ with social anxiety. While both are on the same spectrum of ‘uncomfortableness’, they result in markedly different levels of anxiety. Where the person who is nervous in social groups may be able to push through the discomfort, for the social anxiety disorder sufferer, the level of anxiety may be unbearable and result in remove themselves from even participating in social engagements.

Let’s have a look at social phobia in further detail.

What is social anxiety disorder?
The defining symptoms of social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, are extreme anxiety, image consciousness, fear of being negatively perceived by others and a fear of being unwelcome in social groups. These conditions can make the sufferer irrationally concerned about being labelled as boring, awkward or stupid in social situations.

People with social anxiety tend to avoid being the center of attention or connect socially with others. They will often mumble and avoid eye contact and small talk will often make them extremely uncomfortable. Such encounters, if not avoided, can cause distress which may spiral out of control resultant in a panic attack.

What are the symptoms of social anxiety?
One of the symptoms of social phobia is the assumption that the sufferer is alone in their discomfort; this is certainly not the case. Another common symptom is fear being the center of attention. Social anxiety can also cause the sufferer to experience physical symptoms such as elevated heart rate, sweating, nausea, and may also encounter panic attacks when they feel they are unable to ‘escape’ from social situations. Other psychical symptoms include shaking or trembling, blushing, hot flashes, feeling dizzy and in extreme cases, feeling detached from one’s body (derealization). Sufferers of social anxiety may also feel some (or all) of the following negative emotions: embarrassment, shame, helplessness, sadness and anger.

It should be noted, symptoms may fluctuate with stress and the general demands of life and may enter remission for unspecified periods of time.

When does it occur?
Social anxiety disorder often starts to manifest during the onset of puberty. Adolescence with SAD often avoid playing with other children, tend to prefer the company of teachers or other adults, refuse to participate in class, or in extreme cases, refuse to go to school.

If left untreated, socially anxious children have a strong propensity to grow into socially anxious adults. Other factors that may lead to the development of social anxiety are if one has a socially anxious parent, a specific health condition or noticeable deformity that attracts attention to one’s appearance, or if one has been abused.

According to a recent survey, approximately 7% of Canadians will experience social anxiety in any given year. Of that 7%, approximately half will experience a general fear of public speaking while the other half experience ‘complex’ fears.

What is mindfulness?
Of the many treatments for social phobia, one of the most effective is mindfulness. Mindfulness allows one to become aware of the present moment and choose how to behave rather than react impulsively. Moreover, mindfulness has the propensity to improve focus and enables the practitioner to reorientate their thoughts positively in social situations.

Mindfulness is essentially the practice of becoming aware of one’s emotions, thoughts and physical sensations, without judgment or reaction.

The author of The Mindful Path through Shyness, Steve Flowers defines mindfulness as,

“Mindfulness is paying attention on purpose, without trying to get to some goal or escape anything.”

Mindfulness has been practiced for thousands of years. It was initially ‘popularized’ in the East by Buddhist and Hindu traditions, while its popularity in the West has largely been attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Mindful self-awareness can easily be practiced throughout the day.

How can mindfulness be used to treat social anxiety disorder?
One of the most difficult tasks for someone suffering from social anxiety is to seek help; it is one of the symptoms. However, not seeking help may lead to an increase in the severity of symptoms and the development of other anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia. The practise of mindfulness is an excellent bridge toward seeking external help.

With time, the practice of mindfulness can enable one to choose how they react to once frightening triggers, better manage reactions to feared situations and enhance one’s tolerance level to social discomfort. In short, this simple breathing exercise can elevate one’s comfort during life experiences.

How can one implement this practice? It is necessary to begin when one feels safe and calm. To begin practicing mindfulness when one is anxious may instill a negative association and preclude the beginning of the practice altogether. Once safe, start by sitting upright in a comfortable possible position; this can be cross-legged on a cushion on the floor or in a chair. Being breathing, in and out through the nose. Notice the breath. Notice the thoughts. Once one notice’s their mind wandering away from the breath, gently, and without rebuke, bring the attention back to the breath and continue to breathe in and out. This is the practice.

With persistent practise, mindfulness allows for a more rational approach to social situations.
One will be better able to notice thoughts as they enter into mind. It is at this point that one can choose how they react. Is the thought true? Is there any evidence to suggest that it is? Even if it is, what can be done about it? The practice of noticing thoughts, rather than reacting to thoughts will begin to instill a sense of confidence rather than fear. With persistent practice, this will become the norm.

Social anxiety disorder is not something to be ashamed of, rather it is a treatable condition with often understandable origins that can be effectively overcome with mindfulness practices and counselling.


Author's Bio: 

Paul Jozsef Counselling & Coaching provides psychological and emotional health support for adults and adolescents in Westmount, Montreal.
(514) 360-7205‬