I have a friend called Kate, who worries constantly about creating a negative impression. In fact, I think it’s a bit deeper than that; she worries about upsetting others to the point that it’s crippling. Kate called me one day for reassurance that the text that she wrote to mutual friend was not unintentionally offensive, as she had not received a response in the time expected. Kate plays over and over in her mind conversations where she felt embarrassed by what she said, for days after the event. She finds meeting new people exhausting and consequently avoids social gatherings or leaves early.
Does this happen to you? Sometimes we might characterize this as “shy” but for many people (close to 5% of the Australian population) this anxiety about social interactions impacts on wellbeing.
The difference between being shy and having social anxiety is when the worry about social interactions starts to impact on your work, your relationships and on your mood. Typically, people try to find ways to avoid the situation that causes anxiety in order to reduce how much anxiety they experience.
Kate, for example, finds small talk particularly stressful. At work, small talk is how you bridge the gap between “stranger” and “work mate”. You know that awkward discussion in the tea room while you are waiting for the coffee machine, “so…how was your weekend?” and in the lift on the way out of the office “umm…the weather was tops this weekend huh?” Kate just cant deal with it.
Kate knows that small talk is a necessary evil however she believes that she is boring and no one would find her interesting to talk to. So Kate comes in before everyone else so she doesn’t have to ride the lift with others. She NEVER uses the tea room. She only picks up her printing from the printer once per day and if she can get away without using the bathroom, she will.
There are so many proverbial water cooler conversations to avoid that on the surface Kate looks like she is a very hard worker, always at her desk. When in fact Kate is spending a lot of her energy agonizing over how not to bump in to people. And replaying conversations where she felt she said something stupid (“I carried a watermelon??!!)
Unfortunately, facing your fears does not seem to be sufficient to rid people of social anxiety. Because our society operates off the expectation that people will behave in an extraverted way, the socially anxious are constantly placed in situations where they experience an overwhelming amount of anxiety. Without skills to cope with this, such individuals become sensitized to these situations instead of building up a tolerance.
The good news is that social anxiety is very treatable using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Yes, it will involve facing your fears to a certain extent but this will be done in a structured and systematic way, after you have learnt coping skills to manage your anxiety first.
A psychologist is the best person to assist you with this journey as CBT is our bread and butter. If you have been experiencing social anxiety on most days for 6 months, go and speak with your GP about a referral to a psychologist in your local area.
If you are like Kate, you have probably been experiencing social anxiety since you were a teenager. It’s never too late to learn skills to manage your mood. Its not like we were ever taught how to do this at school. Think about a psychologist like a personal trainer for your mind; one-on-one sessions to learn skills to strengthen your mental fitness.
If you would like to learn more about how to manage anxiety, contact our friendly staff at the Parramatta Psychology Clinic on (02) 9687 9776 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.