Social anxiety is a type of anxiety that relates to social situations. It can affect people when they talk to others – not just in large gatherings, but also when they're meeting new people at work or school. It can also affect one-to-one conversations and is sometimes called social anxiety disorder or social phobia.

Our member Lou Baker is an integrative therapist, who works with a variety of techniques and tools to tailor an individual approach for her clients.

Lou says: “Social anxiety is about being afraid of how others perceive you and of people judging you. There's a fear of being embarrassed or saying something wrong in front of other people. These thoughts spiral and create anxiety.”

As we come out of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, some people are worried about starting to socialise again after months of limited social contact. The term ‘re-entry anxiety’ has been used to cover the impact these fears are having on people – that covers social anxiety too.

Counselling can give you a safe space to talk about how you’re feeling, without being judged. A counsellor can help you understand why you feel way this way and support you to overcome it.

What causes social anxiety?

Social anxiety, like any form of anxiety, stems from our fight or flight response. This is a physiological response triggered by a release of hormones that either prompts us to stay and fight or to flee. We may also freeze and feel unable to do or say anything. It happens when we believe we’re under threat.

In the case of social anxiety, the threat is what we think might happen to us during social interactions, such as being judged or being embarrassed - even if these things aren’t actually going to happen. 

What are the symptoms of social anxiety?

If you have social anxiety, you may worry about conversations, meetings and interactions before, during and after they happen. It’s more than being shy, it’s something that can completely overwhelm you. It can have an impact on your friendships at work or in education and affect your ability to do everyday activities, such as shopping.

It can also give you physical symptoms, such as feeling sick, clammy, nauseous or sweaty. It might increase your heart rate or give you panic attacks. 

How to overcome social anxiety

Talking to a therapist can help you deal with social anxiety. There's techniques you can learn to use yourself that help too.

Lou recommends giving yourself small and achievable goals when socialising. For instance, if you’re anxious about going to an event, you might want to give yourself the goal of just going along for 20 minutes. Then you can increase that next time. 

Other techniques that might help could be breathing exercises, thinking of a few conversation starters in advance or having someone you trust to support you during anxious situations.

Some people may try to avoid social situations but it’s helpful to understand why you’re feeling this way so you can overcome it in the long-term.

How can counselling help with social anxiety?

“Counselling allows people to talk, share how they feel and explore where this anxiety has come from,” says Lou.

“Part of the work we do with clients is to reinforce their self-esteem, their self-belief and help their resilience. We don’t want people to feel deterred if they have a negative experience, but to focus on the positives.”

Lou says she talks to her clients about what she calls the ‘power of yet’. This is when you believe you may not be able to do something or engage in a social interaction. Lou says, “You want to reframe that as you can’t do it yet. That gives you options. It leaves the door open for you.”

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help as it’s a type of therapy that looks at your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It can help you to change these to manage your problems.

“CBT can provide you with techniques that can help you to manage your fears and settle your anxiety. It works well when coupled with understanding why the fear and anxiety began,” says Lou. 

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected people with social anxiety?

Lou says she's seen a rise in people with social anxiety since the start of the pandemic. We’re hearing the same from many of our members.

“During lockdown everyone experienced the same thing. Many people who already had social anxiety didn’t feel the pressure they usually do. But with lockdown lifting people with social anxiety may be back to square one.

“On top of that, there are now other social rules such as masks and social distancing they have to live by. They have to think twice, as meeting people is different now.

“The message now is that we should be excited about the end of lockdown and being able to see people again – but for some people they’re really feeling the pressure of that.”

If you have any comments or would like to share your story, please email us at communications@bacp.co.uk