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4 Ways to Address the Fears Behind Social Anxiety

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4 Ways to Address the Fears Behind Social Anxiety

Will Bratt

How Common is Social Anxiety?

74% of people fear public speaking more than death.

Let that sink in for a minute.

The fact that just shy of ¾ of the population fears public speaking above anything else is very telling of our collective sense of what it means to be in the spotlight. It speaks to the reality that social interaction (and especially being the centre of attention) is a risky proposition. It is the awareness of that risk that lies at the heart of social anxiety.

Regardless of whether you see social anxiety as a clinical problem or a common challenge of simply living in this world, this post provides insights into what social anxiety is and tangible actions you can take to address some common fears behind it.

What is Social Anxiety?

What are we really talking about when we say “social anxiety”? Generally speaking, it’s a term that describes fears around having negative social interactions with others. For some, social anxiety revolves around groups of new people, while for others it’s large crowds. It can also pertain to certain one-on-one relationships, or tie in to situations in which you have responsibility to others (like at a job).

4 common fears or worries that people relate to social anxiety include:

 woman with social anxiety
  1. Not fitting in within small groups
  2. Being judged for a feature of your identity or an aspect of your experience
  3. Being seen or positioned as deficient, inadequate, or incompetent
  4. Feeling unsafe in groups or crowds of people

With all that said, it’s important to acknowledge that the diversity of experiences that could be classified as social anxiety highlight a shortcoming of diagnosis in general: focusing on the experience of the fear, rather than on the specific contexts that support particular fears in existing in the first place.

As a counsellor, I notice that people find it far more helpful to explore and understand the context around their own unique experience of social anxiety, rather than trying to address it more broadly with catch-all tools and skills. That’s why I provide some guiding questions in this post to help you explore and address your own particular social anxieties.

Responses and Resistance to Socially Anxious Circumstances

Responses to the situations we associate with social anxiety can look many different ways. Perhaps the most recognizable response associated with anxiety in general is to avoid the situations in which it is most prominent. As an act of resistance, this makes sense, as it serves to mitigate undesirable experiences.

 woman resisting social anxiety

Other ways of resisting the negative responses and outcomes people associate with social anxiety can include staying quiet or censoring ourselves in groups, chattering nervously and filling the space with words, or carefully curating what we say in order to illicit positive responses. These ultimately all serve the important purpose of mitigating negative responses or encouraging positive ones.

A lot of people who describe themselves as struggling with social anxiety take issue with the constraints they feel around social situations. They long to feel free and at ease, and instead feel as though their life is made smaller by their fears. I believe that feelings always make sense within their given contexts, and so it’s fair to say that social anxiety is both an understandable response to interpersonal experiences, and something that would be relieving to feel less of.

For this reason, it can be helpful to address the specific fears behind your own unique social anxieties.

Addressing Social Anxiety Around Not Fitting In

Just about everyone can relate to the fear that they might stick out like a sore thumb when entering a new social group for the first time. This makes sense, because as I laid out in my post “Addressing the Social Roots of Your Anxiety”, belonging matters for our sense of dignity – and that’s important!

When it comes to social anxiety around not fitting in, there is most often one of two outcomes that people are most fearful of: being rejected or being excluded.

 woman with social anxiety around fitting in

Both rejection and exclusion are understandably adverse possibilities that make sense to be avoided. Rejection is rarely, if ever, kind. It often comes with humiliation and alienation, which can make the experience all the more difficult, or even traumatic. Exclusion, on the other hand, can leave us feeling unwanted or discarded, with an implicit message that we aren’t good enough to be included.

When it comes to actually taking the wind out of anxiety’s sails around our fears of exclusion or rejection, there are a few tangible actions that can help. One is to go out on a limb and actually acknowledge that you feel anxious in those particular moments. As a clever social being, you probably already have a good read on people and circumstances that are safe to do that in. If you’re meeting a new group for the first time and they seem like kind, accepting people, simply acknowledging that you feel anxious when you meet new people can take the pressure to act like you feel at ease (or “normal”) off your shoulders. Otherwise, that pressure can just amplify the anxiety that you already feel in risky social interactions.

Some other more private or subtle strategies in these situations include:

  • Focusing on breathing slowly and intentionally if it feels like your breath is shallow and quick
    • Also, softening your abdomen and opening your shoulders while you breathe into your tummy can support more of a sense of being in control of your body (heart rate, breathing, perspiration, etc.)
  • Talking yourself through the fear of being excluded or rejected: If your fears come true, how can you deal with it?
    • What power or capacity do you have to handle negative social responses?
    • How have you dealt with them in the past?
    • Who do you know who deals with negative responses well, and how do you imagine they do it
    • What do you know about yourself that is at odds with the anxiety’s messages?

Taking Care of Fears of Judgment

Anxiety around the fear of judgment is similar to the fear of not fitting in, but different in some distinct ways. While they both relate to not belonging, the fear behind this kind of social anxiety is more about receiving a negative social response about a particular aspect of your identity or experience. This can look like fears of judgment for how you look, your sexuality or gender identity, your socioeconomic status, how you speak, your job or level of education, or stigmatized experiences you’ve had (such as abuse).

 woman with social anxiety around judgment

I know it goes without saying, but judgment sucks. It reduces us to a diminished essence far below who we actually are, and if it’s for something about ourselves that we really can’t help, it can really hurt. The hurt we experience for being judged is also very contextual. It probably doesn’t hurt to the same degree if it’s cast by a total stranger, versus a close friend, versus someone we don’t really know but admire, versus a family member.

The bottom line is that it is an affront to our dignity that erodes our sense of safety in social situations.

If you have anxieties about judgment, questions like these could be useful in helping address them:

  • What are the things you’re wariest of being judged for?
  • What is it about those particular things that makes them especially sensitive areas?
  • What do the people who care most about you appreciate most about who you are?
  • Do they know about the areas you’re sensitive about? If they do, why do you suppose they’re still in the picture?
  • How do you imagine they’d respond if they knew you were judged for what you’re sensitive about?
  • What do you imagine someone else’s judgment toward you would say about them?
  • Would their judgment speak more to fundamental problems with you, or to issues they have?
  • If you were to be judged for something you’re sensitive about, who would you go to for support? How would that help your sense of value or dignity?

Dealing with Being Seen as Inadequate, Deficient, or Incompetent

The fear of being deemed inadequate, deficient, or incompetent is similar to the anxiety around judgment described above. The discerning factor, however, is that this has more to do with measuring up and being “good enough”.

 positive message that you are good enough

Being “good enough” is more or less synonymous with “acceptable”, and acceptance and belonging go hand-in-hand. Do you notice a pattern here? This just reaffirms the point that social anxiety has so much to do with belonging, and belonging has so much to do with dignity!

If you stop to think of the very notion of being “good enough”, there is an inherent nod to comparison and competition. This too says a lot about our culture. We are subjected to evaluation across so many of systems and spheres that we go through and belong to in life that it just makes sense for most people to have a radar for the extent to which they measure up with others.

If you struggle to feel like you measure up in the company of others, questions like these could help you navigate those issues:

  • If not “measuring up” feels like a scary or uncomfortable position to be in, what do you imagine to be the consequence?
  • What would it mean to you if that consequence was to come true?
  • In your mind, where do the standards for “measuring up” come from?
  • Is there anyone around whom it really doesn’t matter if they think you’re good enough or not?
  • Who does it feel it matters most around?
  • Who accepts you for the person you are, regardless of how proficient you are at certain things?
  • If there was a critic you knew you absolutely could not appeal to, how would you accept their negative appraisal of you?

Social Anxiety in Crowded Spaces

There are plenty of reasons one might feel a sense of anxiety or panic in large crowded areas. Often, this relates back to adverse or traumatic experiences people have had, which undermine their sense of safety in the community. That aside, you can probably relate to having an increased sense of tension in busy, crowded spaces, which is contrasted by feeling more relaxed and at ease in less densely-packed areas. No matter how you cut it, we tend to respond to busy spaces with more arousal than in their chiller counterparts.

Social anxiety in the context of big crowds is actually quite unique from the previous three varieties discussed above. What differentiates it from the others is the focus on physical safety above belonging and dignity. When people feel anxious at the prospect of being in a large crowd of people, they tend to be less concerned with being judged or excluded, and more worried that something untoward them might happen.

 social anxiety riding the bus

If someone has experienced violence, or is fearful of encountering a person or situation that would be scary or uncomfortable for them, the solution isn’t as simple as saying “Just don’t worry about it! I’m sure you’ll be fine!”. I generally see folks who are vigilant about the dangers of crowded spaces as having had the unfortunate experience of being awakened to the reality that bad things can indeed happen. On top of that, if you think about it, it can be a lot harder to watch your back when there are a ton of other bodies milling around you. Sometimes there’s good sense behind our sensitivities and aversions.

If you struggle with anxiety around crowds or big groups of people, these questions could help you explore that:

  • What makes crowded spaces different than those with fewer people when it comes to your anxiety level?
  • What are you most wary of having happen when you’re in a crowded place?
  • What precautions do you take to create safety when you’re entering crowded spaces?
  • If you could imagine something happening that would take all your worries about this away, what would that be?
  • How have you created safety in the past when you’ve felt fearful or unsafe going into crowded spaces?
  • When you reflect on that, what does that tell you about your capacity to handle hard situations?

Knowing Your Social Anxieties

Being aware of your anxieties, fears, and worries can help you navigate them with intention. This can be hard to do when we’re just rolling with our anxious impulses. When you have a more robust understanding of the fears behind your social anxiety, it’s easier to negotiate with them and live in more preferred and expansive ways.

What kinds of social situations do you find you feel most anxious in, and why?

Do you have strategies for navigating your own feelings of anxiety in social situations?