Theme: Help! I feel anxious in social situations…
Q. On many social occasions I feel very awkward and hesitant. Although I do end up meeting people and talking to them, the few minutes are difficult. Am I just being shy or do I have something more than shyness?
A. Shyness is a feeling of feeling of apprehension, awkwardness that people usually experience in the presence of others. Many people consider shyness to be a hindrance to achieving personal goals.
Shyness is also considered as being part of one’s temperament. Social anxiety or social phobia is an extreme form of shyness and social withdrawal. However, not all people who are shy have social phobia. When you are experiencing significant disturbance in your personal, professional and other areas of life due to this awkwardness and social withdrawal you can consider taking professional help to overcome this. Remember there is help available for social anxiety and shyness is not the same as social phobia!
Q. I seem to have a problem of becoming anxious only when I am presenting to a big group and often avoid it. But I am comfortable talking to friends, relatives at other times. I was told I have social anxiety- I cannot understand how I can be having social anxiety when I have a fear only of making a presentation?
A. Social anxiety can be of different types. The most common one that affects young people, particularly students and young professionals is that of public speaking anxiety or specific social anxiety. They can get along without anxiety in other situations, where they do not expect to others to evaluate their performance negatively or fail.
They are others who have what is called generalized social anxiety- and experience anxiety in many social situations like talking over the phone in front of others, meeting people in formal or informal settings or even entering a room full of people.
Q. Even though I feel like a nervous wreck during my presentations and believe that I look like one, my friends tell me that they don’t notice anything! How can that be?
A. Often during a socially anxious moment, only you will be excessively aware of your anxiety and awkwardness. This is due to a phenomenon called self-focused attention or excessive self consciousness. So you may believe that what is so obvious to you is obvious to others as well. But in reality others may never notice it to the extent you do. Being excessively self- focused can just make you more anxious and you often end up reading others’ minds- thinking – “they must think I am such an awkward speaker!”
Q. Much after an event I keep wondering why I said something the way I did… how I should have corrected myself. After all this thinking, I end up feeling sad…
A. Many people do a “post-mortem” or a post-event analysis of what they said or did in social situations. They go over and over things in great detail and in the process amplify tiny negative details that would have otherwise been forgotten. This excess focus on small details or so called mistakes makes you feel sad.
Q. When I feel awkward about attending social gatherings and meetings, I try to deal with it by avoiding it. My friends force me to attend but I end up leaving the party mid way. How can I help myself? I don’t see any other way of dealing with my fears.
A. Avoiding social situations that cause anxiety can only temporarily help reducing your fears. But once you need to face the same situation again, you may experience the same or greater fear.
Fears tend to grow or “incubate” with both avoidance and brief exposures, like going for a party and leaving it when your fears begin to increase.
A simple yet effective way is to list your fears and gradually face them one by one, starting with the lowest one. Remember staying in the situation not only helps you body get habituated to the anxiety; it also helps you learn that some of the expected consequences may never occur!
Expert: Dr Paulomi M Sudhir
Dept of Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS, Bangalore