For some, social interactions may come easy and be enjoyable, but for those with social anxiety, even the most casual gatherings or routine tasks can be a constant, overwhelming battle. The fear of judgement and failure looms, making something as seemingly insignificant as a class presentation feel like a challenge.
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr Ranjita Kumari, assistant professor, Department of Clinical Psychology at the Central India Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences, Chhattisgarh says, “Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), is a subset of anxiety disorders. It can cause individuals to experience the fear of being judged or embarrassed in social situations.” This, she says, can lead to the fear of interactions and public speaking.
What does social anxiety look like?
“I often feel overwhelmed with dread when it comes to social gatherings,” says Subhajit Maparu, a 19-year-old student from Kolkata who has been diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). “I tend to overthink every interaction, leading me to avoid these interactions altogether. It’s not just the internal distress that I feel, but also the fear of embarrassing myself in front of others.” The familiar knots in his stomach are a constant reminder of many struggling daily with social anxiety.
Corroborating Mapuru’s account, Bhubaneswar-based psychiatrist at AIIMS Dr Asish Asutosh Choudhury adds, “The level of fear experienced is so overwhelming that it becomes uncontrollable. This causes significant dysfunction in their daily life, including going to work, attending school, eating, drinking in front of others, or using a public restroom.”
According to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the criteria for diagnosis of SAD include:
- Excessive fear or anxiety occurring consistently in one or more social situations.
- Consistently avoiding social situations or enduring them with intense fear or anxiety.
- Persistent symptoms for an extended period.
- Not having another mental disorder to account for the symptoms.
Dr Ranjita says, “The physical symptoms include feeling ill before or during social activities, sweating, trembling, a racing heart, or difficulty speaking.”
More than shyness
Maparu describes himself as naturally shy. He says, “My social anxiety is often undermined and labelled as shyness. I feel anxious when someone calls me, or when I must greet a guest. But no one apart from my family understands how different social anxiety is from shyness.”
A 2001 study done on Social Phobia and Social Anxiety as Components of Shyness by psychologist Bernardo J Carducci found that while there are similarities between social anxiety and shyness, they are not the same. The study further provides a clear distinction between shyness and SAD. Shyness is associated with feelings of fear and nervousness during social interactions, while SAD is characterised by a more severe level of anxiety and an intentional avoidance of social situations.
Dr Ranjita says, “Shyness is a personality trait that many people experience to some degree.” It is important for one to recognise the difference despite similarities like nervousness and fear around social activities.
Shyness involves feeling self-conscious in social situations, but it does not typically interfere with a person’s daily life or ability to function. However, extreme fear in social situations is often irrational and disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the situation. SAD is persistent and chronic, while shyness is often temporary and may improve over time. “In social anxiety, there is a definite onset of symptoms from time to time, but shyness always remains a part of the personality,” says Dr Choudhury. SAD is a mental disorder that might worsen if not treated, but shyness can generally be managed without any specific treatment.
Timely strategies go a long way in tackling SAD. Dr Ranjita lists out some effective ones to manage SAD:
- Practise deep breathing: When you feel anxious or stressed, it helps to take a few deep breaths to calm your mind and body. Try inhaling slowly through your nose and exhaling slowly through your mouth. Read more: Breathe easy with pranayama
- Seek support: Sometimes, it can be helpful to talk to someone, such as a trusted friend or family member, about your feelings of social anxiety. However, if it is severe or interfering with your daily life, it may be helpful to seek the help of a mental health professional.
- Challenge negative thoughts: People with social anxiety often have negative thoughts about themselves and their abilities. These thoughts can fuel anxiety and self-doubt. One way to overcome such thoughts is to write them down and then come up with evidence to challenge them. Read more: Logging your emotions to uncover the power of journaling
- Expose yourself to social situations in a controlled way. This is known as exposure therapy. Start with small, low-stress social situations and gradually work your way up to larger, more challenging ones.
- Use positive self-talk: When you are in a social situation, remind yourself of your strengths and positive qualities. This can help boost your self-confidence and reduce anxiety. Read More: The power of self-talk: quietening the inner critic
- Using relaxation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness meditation, or visualisation can help manage anxiety. These techniques involve focusing your attention on your breath or a specific part of your body and relaxing your muscles. Zainab Anjum