🎯 What Is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is an excessive and persistent fear of what other people think of you and/or how you behave in social situations. It typically involves a lot of overthinking in the form of chronic worry and rumination, as well as avoidance of people or situations that might trigger anxiety.
👀 Examples of Social Anxiety
- Fear of being judged, criticized, or thought badly of by other people in common social situations like parties, holidays, or meetings.
- Avoiding activities you enjoy or value because you’re afraid of doing something stupid, awkward, or embarrassing in front of others.
- Difficulty being truly present in conversations and relationships because you’re lost in worries and insecurities—often about the relationship itself.
- Regularly feeling like an imposter or fraud at work, which often leads to missed opportunities and not performing at your best or showing your real talents and skills.
😬 Problems Associated with Social Anxiety
- Struggles with Intimacy or Commitment in Romantic Relationships. People with social anxiety often have a hard time initiating or maintaining satisfying romantic relationships because of near-constant worry and insecurity about being less than, unworthy, etc. When a long-term partnership or marriage is already present, social anxiety often results in difficulties with trust and intimacy or confidence and independence.
- Substance Abuse and Dependence. Research consistently finds that people with social anxiety are at an increased risk for problematic drug use, including alcoholism or addiction to marijuana or benzodiazepines like Xanax or painkillers.
- Loneliness and Isolation. In milder forms, people with social anxiety often continue to participate in social events and gatherings but experience a lot of stress, anxiety, and exhaustion both leading up to, during, and after the event—which of course lowers their overall enjoyment of those gatherings. In more moderate or extreme forms of social anxiety, people often stop attending gatherings like this at all. Over time, this avoidance leads to chronic isolation and loneliness, both of which tend to exacerbate the social anxiety by reinforcing unhelpful beliefs about not being good with people.
- Anxiety Contagion. Anxiety often spreads from social anxiety to other areas. For example, after struggling with social anxiety for a while it’s not uncommon for panic attacks to develop as people start worrying about losing control and getting overly anxious around others. Other forms of anxiety that can crop up after social anxiety include health anxiety, sleep anxiety, and performance anxiety.
🌀 Origins and Causes of Social Anxiety
While there are many possible causes of social anxiety initially, there are a common set of maintaining causes that tend to make social anxiety worse regardless of how it developed initially:
- Chronic Worry. Worry is the only direct cause of anxiety—including social anxiety. While all sorts of factors can predispose you to social anxiety, they do so by increasing your likelihood of worrying about what other people think of you or worrying about yourself in social situations. Ultimately, this is good news because if you can better manage your tendency to worry, your social anxiety will decrease significantly. Scheduled worry and mindfulness training are excellent exercises to help you reduce chronic worry and all the anxiety it produces.
- Alcohol, Marijuana, & Other Drugs. Many people fall into the habit of using drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with their social anxiety. Unfortunately, chronic substance abuse tends to make social anxiety worse in the long-run despite the short-term relief it brings. There are several reasons for this, but here are a few… Decreased self-confidence. If you get in the habit of using substances to deal with anxiety, your confidence dealing with anxiety yourself deteriorates. Poor sleep. Most anxiety-related drugs, as well as marijuana and alcohol, have detrimental impacts on your sleep quality. And when you’re not sleeping well, it’s much more difficult to regulate worry and anxiety. Shame. Many people who use substances to cope with social anxiety develop considerable shame around their substance use, which then exacerbates feelings of social anxiety and negative comparisons with others.
- Low Assertiveness. Assertiveness is the willingness to ask for what you want or express yourself in a way that is honest, clear, and respectful. People with low assertiveness tend to chronically put themselves in situations they either don’t enjoy or find stressful and exhausting, all of which make it more difficult to deal with social anxiety.
💡 Key Insights About Social Anxiety
- Social Anxiety Makes (Evolutionary) Sense. Human beings are social animals. Part of our success as a species is that we’re extremely good at coordinating with each other and working together. And one of the reasons for this is that we are highly attuned to and sensitive to other people, including what they’re thinking and feeling. Because the capacity to be social is so critical, it makes a lot of sense that we would be especially concerned about ourselves as social beings—what other people think of us, our place in the social hierarchy, how we perform socially, etc. In other words, the common advice that we “shouldn’t care what other people think” is nonsense. Of course you care about what other people think! The trick is to not become overly concerned with what other people think. And surprisingly, this is easier to do when you validate the fact that it’s normal and okay to care about what other people think of you.
- It’s Okay to Be an Introvert. In many cultures, especially American culture, many of the traits we associate with extroverts are especially prized and valued. As a result, we all grow up implicitly believing that to be extroverted is good and introverted bad. If you’re an introvert who struggles with social anxiety, a key piece of the puzzle is learning to identify your own unhelpful beliefs and negative self-talk about being an introvert and updating them to be more compassionate and realistic.
- It’s Okay to Be an Extrovert with Social Anxiety. Of course, extroverts get social anxiety too—far more commonly than you’d think, actually. Many extroverts appear confident and easy-going in social situations but are often wracked with anxiety and stress on the inside, in part because they believe and tell themselves that there’s something especially wrong with them for having social anxiety as an extrovert. Again, the first step to escaping this cycle is to validate that it’s actually quite normal to be extroverted and have social anxiety.
- Focus on Building Confidence, Not Avoiding Anxiety. A common pattern among folks with social anxiety is that they develop a self-critical and judgmental attitude toward their social anxiety. As a result, their goals become defined by trying to eliminate or get rid of their anxiety (which is part of the reasons why it’s so easy to fall into unhealthy drug or alcohol use). But if you’re constantly fighting with your social anxiety, you’re signaling to your brain that it’s bad and dangerous, which only makes you more sensitive to it and less able to manage it well. On the other hand, people who successfully overcome their social anxiety, almost always manage to reframe their goals away from trying to eliminate or get rid of it, and instead, to becoming more confident handling their social anxiety when it does show up.
🛠️ Tips and Tools for Dealing with Social Anxiety
- Track Your Social Anxiety Triggers. For 1-2 weeks, keep track of your social anxiety. Specifically, briefly note what the situation or event was that triggered or led up to the social anxiety and how intense the anxiety was. This is partly helpful because it shows you that—despite what you tell yourself—you’re not socially anxious all the time and there are some situations where you’re either not socially anxious at all or significantly less socially anxious than others. It will also give you good data and information for beginning to work on confronting social anxiety in a gradual way (see the final tip below), which is how you build up true confidence.
- Validate Your Social Anxiety. Validation means that, whenever you find yourself feeling anxious, you briefly take a second to remind yourself that, however much you dislike your social anxiety, it’s not bad or dangerous. Something that’s especially helpful is to remind yourself that your brain worrying and making you anxious is frustrating but, actually, it’s just trying to help. Your mind is just confused… It thinks you’re in danger even though you’re not. So, as part of validating your anxiety, try thanking your mind for looking out for you. It’s counterintuitive, but this strategy will help you create a kinder, more compassionate relationship with your anxiety rather than falling into judgment and criticism which only make the problem worse.
- Spend More Time with the Right People. Many people with social anxiety feel pressure to spend a lot of time with people or groups who they don’t really enjoy but, for one reason or another, feel the need to be around. Unfortunately, this tends to make social anxiety worse because all your social experiences are exhausting, stressful, and not enjoyable on top of being anxiety-producing. On the other hand, if you make it a point to spend more time with people you actually enjoy and feel like you can be yourself around, you build up your social confidence, which makes it easier to navigate the really challenging social situations later.
- Take a Gradual Approach to Overcoming Social Anxiety. Like any skill in life, navigating tough or intimidating social situations isn’t something you just turn on. Instead, it’s developed slowly and gradually over time. The reason this is important is because you need practice in less intense situations in order to build up the competence and confidence you need to tackle the really challenging ones. But if you’re constantly throwing yourself into the big, overwhelming ones, you’re likely to continue to struggle and feel bad about yourself and lose confidence. So treat social competence like a skill and commit to developing it gradually and progressively over time.
💬 Quotes About Social Anxiety
- “The cost of being who you are is conflict with those who want you to be someone else. The cost of being what others want you to be is conflict with yourself.” — Shane Parrish
- “Don't compare your insides to someone else’s outsides and don't compare your beginning to someone else's middle.” — Ashley Janssen
- “Our anxiety does not come from thinking about the future, but from wanting to control it.” — Kahlil Gibran
- “Not being you is a risky way of becoming.” —Aniekee Tochukwu Ezekiel
- “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” —Carl Jung
🔬 Selected Research and Statistics on Social Anxiety
- Social anxiety disorder is the 3rd most common psychological disorder in the United States, with 12.1% of the population affected at some point in their lives. Source
- Social anxiety disorder has an early onset, with an average age of onset at 13 years old Source
- Women are 2X as likely to develop social anxiety disorder compared to men. Source
- Only about 5% of people with social anxiety disorder seek treatment. Source
- Psychological and pharmacological interventions for social anxiety disorder in adults: a systematic review and network meta-analysis — “Individual CBT (which other studies have shown to have a lower risk of side-effects than pharmacotherapy) is associated with large effect sizes. Thus, it should be regarded as the best intervention for the initial treatment of social anxiety disorder.”
- Generalized social anxiety disorder: A still-neglected anxiety disorder — “In the 3 decades since Liebowitz's review of 'a neglected anxiety disorder,' controversy and challenges have remained in the study of social anxiety disorder (SAD). This review examines evidence around the classification and subtyping of SAD, focusing on generalized SAD.”
- Social anxiety disorder: questions and answers for the DSM-V — This paper looks at data around many fascinating questions related to social anxiety such as: Is performance anxiety a subtype of social anxiety? What about test anxiety or selective mutism? Is there evidence for a generalized subtype of social anxiety disorder?
NOTE: Most of the research and statistics on social anxiety focuses on social anxiety disorder and clinical presentations of social anxiety.
📚 Recommended Reading and Resources for Social Anxiety
- The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook (Book). Extremely practical and full of useful tools and techniques.
- Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Your Emotions for Success at Work (Book). If you struggle with social anxiety in the workplace specifically this book is excellent. I also interviewed the author, Melody Wilding, about imposter syndrome and life as a “sensitive striver” for my podcast here.
- The Assertiveness Workbook (Book). Assertive communication is a hugely underrated skill for overcoming social anxiety. And this is the best book on the topic.