Parties are fun, right? It’s true that many people enjoy the idea of a social gathering …. but a surprisingly large number of people find them extremely daunting … and some try to avoid them completely because their social anxiety completely prevents them from enjoying interacting with others in a social situation. What makes it worse is the stigma that anxiety has – sadly, it’s still not really acceptable to admit that you’d rather stay in and read a book than socialize with friends … and the fact that people don’t feel able to be honest is what often keeps the subject of social anxiety a secret.
And here’s the thing … LOTS of people are affected by it! Social situations ARE sometimes awkward and scary! Why? Well, because you’re opening yourself up to new experiences which you’re not sure about, new people who you don’t know and ‘exposing’ yourself to judgement (good or bad). In fact, most people are a bit nervous about going to a party with lots of new people… I know I am. But social anxiety disorder goes beyond that – it’s a real phobia of social interaction which affects between 10-15% of people in the community at any one time … and that is probably the tip of the iceberg because many of those people won’t seek help for it.
So what does social anxiety really feel like and how can you help yourself if you’re a sufferer?
“I don’t think people realise how stressful it is to explain what’s going on in your head when you don’t even understand it yourself”
That kind of sums it up, because it’s not easily defined or categorized. Many people who try to describe their feelings of anxiety, however, use the vocabulary of fear – ‘dread’, ‘terror’, ‘distress’. Imagine what it would be like to experience those sort of emotions on a frequent basis … and you’re some of the way to understanding how anxiety feels. Add physical sensations such as sweating, palpitations, a tightening of the chest …. and you can begin to see how scary anxiety really is.
Often when people are anxious about a situation, they avoid it – this may help in the short term because the scary situation is removed. By avoiding social situations, though, you are not giving yourself the opportunity to have positive social interaction …. You are ‘proving’ to yourself that you’re not capable of facing up to your fears or of having positive social experiences … setting up a negative self-image.
So what can you do to help yourself overcome this?
- Challenge your unhelpful thoughts – remember thoughts represent YOUR PERCEPTIONS – they are not necessarily representative of life as it really is. You might think that everyone thinks you’re an idiot, for example, but where is the evidence for that? Why would somebody think that? Don’t assume what everybody else is thinking when you simply don’t know – you’re not a mind reader!
- Try to avoid ‘what if’ questions, focusing on the negative – ‘what if’s are things we have no idea of knowing! ‘What if I have an amazing time?’ is just as valid as ‘What if I have a terrible time?’
- Give yourself the same advice that you would give to a friend – don’t judge yourself more harshly than you would judge someone else – why use a different criteria for yourself?
- Try to view events and situations in a balanced and rational way – remind yourself that you’ve confronted fears before and overcome them – you CAN do it again.
- Ask yourself ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ It may be that you don’t enjoy the party … can you cope with that if it happens? Chances are that you can. Now the best thing – that you have a great time. The opportunity for the positive usually outweighs the small chance of the negative.
- Lastly, be brave! Once you start to realise that you CAN overcome a fear, that there is the opportunity for positive experiences, the fear subsides.