social anxiety

Do you get stressed in social situations? You might have social anxiety. I want to discuss:

  • The definition of social anxiety
  • Specific situations that trigger social anxiety
  • Common signs and symptoms of social anxiety

Let’s get to the truth about social anxiety and what you can do about it.

I want to bust the myths and misinformation.

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is when you feel nervous, tense or uncomfortable in social situations because you’re worried other people are judging you. Almost everyone has experienced social anxiety at one point or another. Life is rife with moments of self-consciousness–from job interviews to first dates, we all occasionally feel nervous around other people. But social anxiety becomes a problem when it’s so frequent or intense that it gets in the way of important things in your life. You might not apply for a dream job because it requires an interview, or you might find it hard to be around even family and friends because you’re so worried about what they think of you.

If social anxiety has prevented you from doing the things you want, such as making new friends or going on dates, you’re not alone. Social anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions in the United States, affecting 15 million adult Americans each year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in eight Americans experience social anxiety during their lifetime (about 30 million).

Recognizing if you have social anxiety

While social anxiety always involves a fear of being judged negatively, the actual situations that cause it can vary greatly from person to person. Many people with social anxiety feel nervous in most situations that involve interacting with or performing in front of other people. But some people only experience social anxiety in particular situations, such as speaking in front of others or hosting an event. For example, a person who is typically very outgoing and comfortable talking to strangers at parties might only have social anxiety when giving presentations. In fact, public speaking is one of the most common specific forms of social anxiety.

Common situations in which people experience social anxiety:

  • Speaking in front of a group
  • Talking to strangers
  • Being the center of attention (such as when you are hosting a dinner)
  • Speaking to authority figures (such as your boss)
  • Answering the phone
  • Eating or drinking in front of others
  • Talking to someone you find attractive

Signs and Symptoms of Social Anxiety

People often think social anxiety is just a feeling, but it actually has four components: thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and behaviors. Most people might begin recognizing their social anxiety when they notice nervousness also is accompanied by physical symptoms such as trembling and crying. When you’re anxious, the four components interact with and build upon each other, causing a cycle of anxiety. For example, here’s how your anxiety might manifest itself if you’re nervous about giving a presentation at work:

social anxiety, anxiety cycle, joyable Thoughts: Often, your anxiety will begin with a negative thought, such as “I’m going to screw up” or “People will think I’m stupid.”

Feelings: These thoughts cause you to feel negative emotions, such as stress or worry.

Physical Response: Your body reacts to your negative thoughts and feelings with a physical response, such as blushing, sweating or shaking.

Behaviors: You try reducing your anxiety with conscious or unconscious actions, such as averting your gaze or hiding behind the podium (to prevent people from seeing you shake). Acting this way may make you think everyone else notices you look stiff (an anxious thought), which then can cause you to feel even more stressed (an anxious feeling).

People with social anxiety often don’t realize when their behavior is being driven by anxiety. People with social anxiety tend to exhibit three types of behaviors:

  • Avoidance behaviors: When you stay away from situations that make you anxious. For example, you might turn down opportunities to give presentations at work.
  • Escape behaviors: When you leave situations that make you anxious, such as leaving a concert or party after just a few minutes because of your anxiety.
  • Safety behaviors: Actions you take to reduce your anxiety in social situations, such as drinking to feel more comfortable or playing a game on your phone at lunch. In the example above, averting your gaze or hiding behind the podium during the presentation are safety behaviors.

What to do if you have social anxiety

If you think you have social anxiety, the most important question to ask yourself is whether it prevents you from achieving your goals. For example, we mentioned earlier that a large majority of people report a fear of public speaking. You might be one of them. But if your job or goals don’t require public speaking, then being afraid of it might not be a big deal. On the other hand, if your fear is keeping you from getting the promotion you want, or getting in the way of an important personal goal, such as giving a speech at your sister’s wedding, then you might consider looking for help.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) widely is recognized as the most effective treatment for social anxiety. It’s endorsed by leading mental health organizations, including the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health  and the U.K. National Health Service. CBT is a set of activities proven to reduce your anxiety through repeated practice. It consists of two main parts: cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy.

The cognitive part of CBT is based on the idea that it’s not a social situation that makes you anxious, but your interpretation of that situation. For example, if you’re having dinner with a friend and she leaves early, you can interpret this several ways. You might think she found dinner with you boring (leading you to feel anxious), or you might think she had a long day and was tired (and feel neutral). People with social anxiety tend to interpret situations in a disproportionately negative way. CBT teaches you to recognize and embrace the existence of alternative interpretations, allowing you to identify if other possible explanations are less likely to trigger your anxiety.

The behavioral part of CBT involves gradually facing the situations that make you anxious to overcome your fear of them. (This exercise is called an “exposure.”) You probably imagine the worst-case scenario will happen if you confront these situations, so you tend to avoid them. However, when you actually place yourself in the situations you fear, you have two critical realizations: First, the bad outcome you fear happens less often than you think. Second, even if it does happen, you can handle it. It’s key that exposures are gradual: You start small, with a situation that causes some anxiety but is doable. Then work your way up to situations that make you really anxious.

For example, if giving a presentation makes you extremely anxious, to the point where you might even call in sick to avoid it, your first exposure would be a similar but less anxiety-inducing situation, such as telling a story to a group of friends. Once you learn to get comfortable in these practice situations, you’ll be able to take your newfound confidence to more difficult situations you greatly fear or have been avoiding.

Tips for People with Social Anxiety

Here are some CBT-based tips for dealing with social anxiety in the moment:

  1. Remember everyone is self-conscious. Social anxiety is common, and many people experience it. If you’re at a party and feel really anxious about introducing yourself to new people, remember that other people might feel the same way.
  2. Pause to examine the evidence. When you’re feeling anxious, take a moment and try identifying the anxious thoughts running through your head. Challenge them by asking questions such as: “What evidence do I have this is true?” and “Is there another explanation for what happened?” If someone responds curtly to you, you may have the anxious thought that “They think I’m boring.” What if you challenged that thought and instead considered another explanation: Maybe they were in a hurry, or maybe they were already on their way to talk to someone else when you approached them.
  3. Imagine the worst-case scenario. Often, people with social anxiety think making a mistake will cause far worse consequences than it actually would. If you’re worried about something, such as stumbling over your words, ask what really would happen if you stumbled over your words. Would people really laugh at you? They’d probably barely notice it or quickly forget about it and continue the conversation.
  4. Remind yourself anticipation is worse than reality. Often, our worries about an upcoming situation are worse than the situation itself. If you’re worried about striking up a conversation because you think you’ll have nothing to say, remind yourself that you only have to start with “Hello.” Once you begin the conversation, it gets a lot easier.
  5. Bring a cheat sheet. Before going into an anxiety-inducing situation, anticipate what anxious thoughts you’ll have and challenge them on a piece of paper. Bring this piece of paper with you to the event (or save it on your phone). Then if you start feeling nervous, you can look at it to remind yourself of your thought challenges and calm yourself down.
  6. Consider getting help. If you find social anxiety really is impacting your life (For instance, getting in the way of your career or relationships, or making it hard to go to social events you want to attend.), consider seeking help through an evidence-based solution such as CBT.

We get lots of questions about social anxiety. People want to know if everyone feels the way they do or if their social habits are ‘normal.’ I also know that some forms of social anxiety are beyond the advice on this blog. Since I am not an expert in social anxiety, I found someone to tackle this topic for us. I had stumbled upon Joyable when it was recommended to me by a friend. Joyable is an online service to help tackle social anxiety. I was unsure of what to expect at first, but after completing the entire program, I was blown away. After I finished the program, I reached out to them to do a guest post for our blog on social anxiety and how Joyable helps.

Just to be clear, they are not a sponsor, they are not paying for this coverage and I get no benefit if you use Joyable. I am posting this because I think their perspective is really interesting and I think it can help people—it helped me. They have been wonderful and put together this great post for us. I hope you enjoy it and please let me know if you end up using Joyable and what you think.

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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