Mental Health 101 - Understanding Social Phobia In Adults
It is pretty natural to feel a little self-conscious every now and then. It is also natural to feel a little nervous or shy at some points in front of others. Most people can easily get through these moments as and when they need to. But for others, the anxiety starts to settle in as soon as they start feeling self-conscious and shy. The feeling starts becoming overwhelming, taking over them in an extreme manner, and they end up closing their shells. This then becomes a mental health concern.
When people are feeling self-conscious and anxious in these ways, it prevents them from socializing and speaking up at times. This is not just shyness affecting them. It is a mental health condition, an anxiety disorder called social phobia. Social phobia is also known as social anxiety.
What happens when people have social phobia?
Extreme levels of self-consciousness and shyness can build into unsurmountable, powerful fears. Because of this, people often feel uncomfortable when participating in daily social situations.
People with mental health conditions like social phobia or social anxiety can often interact with their family and a few close friends perfectly and easily. But meeting new people, talking in a large group, or public speaking can cause their “extreme shyness” to start kicking in.
With social anxiety, a person’s extreme self-consciousness, shyness, and fear of embarrassment can get in their way of life. So, instead of them being able to enjoy their social lives and daily activities, these people start dreading them. They tend to avoid them altogether.
What can cause Social Phobia?
Just like other mental health conditions and phobias, social phobia is like a fear reaction to something that is usually not dangerous. However, a person’s body and mind can react as if the danger is pretty real. This means that someone can really feel the “physical sensation” of fear. They can start to get palpitations, rapid heartbeat, faster breathing, etc. These are the body’s fight or flight responses. They can be caused because of a rush of adrenaline and other chemical components that prepare people to either get away from the situation or fight the situation.
These biological mechanisms start to kick in when people start to feel afraid. This built-in nervous system response can alert people to dangers, so they start to protect themselves. With a mental health condition like social phobia, such responses can get activated quickly, strongly, and frequently in situations where something is out of place. Since the physical sensations connected with the responses are real and oftentimes extremely strong, the danger starts appearing real as well. The person starts to freeze up and ends up not being able to interact.
As our body experiences such physical sensations, one’s mind can go through various emotions like the feeling of nervousness and being afraid.
People with such mental health conditions can interpret these sensations and emotions in a certain way, further avoiding future situations. Their heart starts pounding, they feel there is something wrong and something dangerous, and they often end up giving up and not doing anything. Others can interpret this same physical sensation of nervousness completely differently. In their mind, they think their heart is beating faster, probably because it's their turn to speak next. It isn’t a big deal for them, and it happens every time.
What kinds of fears are involved?
With social phobia, various fears and concerns of people tend to be focussed on their social performance, be it a major presentation in their college or office or just “small talk” around lockers.
People with this mental health condition tend to feel extremely uncomfortable and self-conscious about being judged and noticed by others around them. They are more sensitive to fears that they often get embarrassed, look foolish, make mistakes, and be laughed at or criticized. Nobody wants to be judged or go through these feelings. But most people do not spend a lot of time worrying about these things. The fear and anxiety for them are out of proportion to the situation.
How can social phobia affect your life?
As far as social phobia or social anxiety is concerned, fears and thoughts about what others around them think can be exaggerated in their mind. They often start to focus on embarrassing things that could happen to them instead of focussing on the better things around them. This can make situations seem much worse than they really are and influence people to avoid them altogether.
Some significant ways social phobia, as a mental health condition, can affect one’s life are:
- Feeling lonely and disappointed because of missed opportunities for fun and friendship.
Social phobia can sometimes prevent people from chatting away with their friends in the cafeteria, joining after-school clubs, partying with friends, or asking someone out on a date.
- Not getting the most out of their educational experience.
Social anxiety can keep people from volunteering to raise their hand and answer, even though they do have the right answers. Someone with social anxiety can often be too nervous to ask questions in class or take help from teachers to understand better.
- Not being able to share their talents or learn new skills.
Social anxiety tends to prevent people from participating in talent shows, trying out for school/college teams, joining any service projects, or auditioning for theater groups at school. Social phobia can also prevent people from trying out new things and sharing their talents with others. It also prevents them from making normal, daily mistakes that further enhance their skills.
Understanding Selective Mutism
Some children, teenagers, and even adults can be extremely shy and fearful about talking to others. This gets in their way of speaking to certain people, for example, teachers or students that they do not know or those they are meeting for the first time. This can also happen in certain places that are new and different for them, like at someone else’s home. This is also a mental health condition that is a subcategory of social anxiety, called selective mutism.
People with selective mutism can talk since it’s not like they do not talk at all. They are capable of having completely normal conversations with the people they are comfortable with or in certain places they are comfortable. In other situations that can cause severe anxiety, they might not be able to bring themselves to talk about anything to anyone.
Others around them can mistake their silence for rudeness or just a stuck-up attitude. But when it comes to selective mutism and social anxiety, silence is deep-rooted, often stemming from the feeling of being afraid and uncomfortable, not from being disrespectful, uncooperative, or rude.
Why do some people develop social anxiety?
Children, teenagers, and adults can all have social phobia. In most cases, it starts when people are too young. Like other anxiety-based issues, social phobia can develop because of three factors -
- Their biological makeup
As a mental health problem, social phobia can be caused partly due to the genes and temperament a person inherits from their parents. Inherited genetic traits can often influence the way a person’s brain senses and regulates anxiety, nervousness, shyness, and stress reactions. Likewise, some people can be born with shy temperaments and usually tend to be cautious and sensitive to new situations. They tend to prefer what is familiar to them. Most people developing social phobia have always had shy temperaments.
But, not everyone with a shy temperament can develop this mental health concern. In fact, most people actually don’t. It is the same with genes. However, people inheriting these traits can have an increased chance of developing social phobia.
- Behaviors learned from role models and parents
Someone’s naturally shy temperament can be influenced by what they learn from their role models, especially their parents. If their parents and other role models react by overprotecting the child, who is usually shy, the child will not have a chance to get acquainted with new situations and new people. Over time, this shyness tends to develop into social phobia.
Shy parents can also, unintentionally, set examples by avoiding social situations and interactions. Shy children can watch this behavior, learn that socializing can be uncomfortable, distressing, and something that should be avoided.
- Life experiences and events
When people who are born cautious experience a stressful event in their life, it can make them even more cautious, shy, and closed off. They can feel pressured to interact in ways that they are uncomfortable with or not ready for. They also fear being humiliated and criticized and have other fears and worries, making them fearful and shy. This leads to them developing social anxiety.
People who have constantly received disapproving reactions or critical comments in the past can grow up expecting that others are also going to judge them in the same negative manner. They expect to be teased and bullied, which often leads to such people retreating back into their shells. They will be scared to make mistakes and disappoint others and can be extra sensitive to criticism.
However, the good news here is that the effect of all the negative experiences can be turned around with some focused, slow yet steady strategies and efforts. Fear can be learned and can be unlearned as well.
Dealing with social anxiety
People with mental health concerns like social phobia or social anxiety can learn to manage their fears, develop confidence and coping mechanisms, to stop avoiding various things making them anxious. However, this is not all easy. Overcoming social phobia can mean gaining the courage to take things beyond one’s comfort zone, little by little.
There are plenty of people who can guide and support others in overcoming social phobia:
They can help people recognize all physical sensations caused by fight or flight responses and teach them and guide them to interpret these sensations accurately. Therapists can help people create plans to face social fears and situations, step by step. This helps people build confidence and skills to face daily situations the right way. This also includes practicing new behaviors. Sometimes, though not always, medication can help reduce anxiety and is often a part of the overall treatment for social anxiety as well.
- Family and Friends
One’s family members and closest friends are people who deal with social phobia. They can provide us with the right support at the right time. The right support from these key people can help others with social phobia and other mental health challenges and the courage to go outside their comfort zone and experience new events.
Any form of critical remarks, lectures, putdowns, and demands cannot help people with social phobia in any way. They will just make them feel bad. Having a social phobia is not a person’s fault, and it is not something anyone can choose as a part of their life. Instead, family members and friends can encourage people with social phobia to help them pick small goals and encourage them to aim for them, achieve them. Family and friends should be there to support them when they feel discouraged. Good friends and family members must be there to celebrate every single success along the way, no matter how tiny.
- The Takeaway
Dealing with social phobia can take a lot of patience, a little bit of courage to face fears, and a willingness to try new things. It takes a lot of patience and commitment to go forward with daily tasks for people with this mental health condition, rather than just back away while they feel shy.
However little steps they take, people with social phobia can deal with the extremities they face in terms of shyness. Every single step forward can help them build enough confidence to take things to the next level. As their fears and shyness start melting away, positivity and confidence start building in. Pretty soon, people with social anxiety are thinking less about what feels uncomfortable and more about what could be potentially fun.
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