Social anxiety is the term that’s used to describe a high level of shyness and general unease in social situations.
It is a medically recognized condition that has been linked to anomalies in brain chemistry and dysfunctional thought patterns.
While all of us might feel a bit shy now and again, people with social anxiety feel this in a more extreme way, to the point that it can completely rule their lives.
I have personally struggled with social anxiety since I was a child but I’m not exactly sure what caused it. It seems to be something I was born with because I can’t really remember a life without it.
Professionals have told me social anxiety usually begins with a traumatic experience in a social situation and spirals from there.
Obviously, problems with social situations can be debilitating in a world that requires you to be social and switched on 24/7.
So, what if somebody close to you struggles with social anxiety? What are some ways that you might be able to help them?
Here are some ideas to help someone in your life that’s dealing with social anxiety:
1. Try to Understand What Social Anxiety Entails
Social anxiety is not quite as simple as feeling a bit tense or awkward in social situations.
It’s more like this overwhelming, totally irrational idea that every single person around you is judging you, watching your every move, thinks you’re stupid and/or talks about you behind your back.
Of course, that isn’t true. And we know that- that’s what’s so frustrating about social anxiety.
There’s still the “normal” part of our brain in there somewhere, that knows what we’re thinking is a load of nonsense.
I always tell myself, “Ain’t nobody got time to be worrying about what I’m doing!” but that doesn’t really make a difference.
Sometimes we feel completely powerless over the negative thoughts, and that’s what keeps us from making progress.
Learning about the triggers and symptoms of social anxiety will help you to better understand how your loved one is feeling. And understanding, at least a little, of what they’re going through will help them a tonne.
2. Ask How You Can Help
As socially anxious people, we all have different triggers and different levels of anxiety.
For example, I have no issue with eating in public but this is a common trigger for many. Some people have no issues making small talk, whereas it makes me want to curl up into a ball.
Every person is different. Which means what might work for some may not work for others.
The best solution? Just ask what they need from you.
Do they need help to find a therapist? Someone to attend therapy with them? Maybe just a friend to talk to? Or perhaps they just want some company to help take their mind off things.
We often feel like we’re being a burden with our problems, so tend not to reach out for help. But personally, I would love if someone reached out to help me first.
3. Show Compassion
Please don’t tell us we’re being unreasonable or that our thoughts aren’t true. We already know that. We just can’t control it.
During my worst times, all I want is for my friends and family to help and support me and tell me everything is OK.
But, because so many people don’t really understand what social anxiety actually means, I find it hard to find people that truly “get” me.
Most of us feel intensely understood in a world where a normal life completely revolves around social connections.
Heck, it’s hard to even do the basic “life things” like find a job if you’re not a great communicator who loves people.
Being told things like “what you’re thinking isn’t real” makes me feel like I’m being told I’m stupid, or that this disorder is something I just made up for attention.
There will be times where you don’t totally understand how your loved one is feeling, or you think they’re being unreasonable.
But instead of trying to offer advice (which, honestly, probably won’t help very much when they’re so in their own head), just try to reassure them.
Let them know that you love and accept them as they are and that it’s OK to feel how they feel.
4. Be Patient
Yes, we’ll cancel, often. And if do we make it out, we will probably find an excuse to leave early.
My own battle with social anxiety has brought with it a lot of depression, low self-esteem, negative thinking, and isolation. And I’ve lost a lot of friends over the years because of this.
Whenever I spent time with my friends, that part of my brain would tell me they all secretly hate me and talk about me when I’m not there. Of course, this made me not want to hang around with them.
After a few weeks of declining invitations, I stopped being invited out completely which made me feel even worse.
If your loved one keeps declining invitations to parties or other such outings, please don’t take it personally. It’s more than likely not you that they have the issue with, but the social situation or their own insecurities.
While rejection can be hard to deal with, try not to give up on them completely. Remember, they’re probably feeling just as bad about it.
5. Encourage Them
While it’s important to notice and understand when a socially anxious person is feeling overwhelmed, I also feel it’s important not to enable them.
That is, allow them to use their anxiety as an excuse to stop living a normal life.
As scary as it is, I really appreciate it when my partner encourages me to do little things that make me anxious. Not the “big” things like going to parties or clubs- just small tasks that can be conquered quickly.
For me, ordering my own food at the drive through is something I’m really afraid of. But because I can get it over and done within two or three minutes, it’s an easy way for me to make small victories over anxiety.
At the same time, it’s important to take it slowly. Don’t push too hard too fast.
Once, my friends practically forced me to get up on stage with them to sing karaoke because they thought it’d be a confidence booster for me.
Instead, I stood behind them silently with a bright red face while everyone stared at us. Then I went to the bathroom afterward and had a panic attack. Good times.
These kinds of extreme “challenges” can do way more harm than good. Instead of encouraging the person to keep fighting their anxiety, it will probably make them want to lock themselves away for the rest of eternity.
6. Praise Their Progress
Because things like going to parties, ordering at the drive through or making phone calls are super normal for most people, socially anxious people never really get any credit for managing to do these things.
We can often be our own worst critics but I think it’s really important to notice the accomplishments too, rather than only focusing on what we can’t do.
Being high-fived by my partner when I did my first drive-through order really encouraged me and motivated me to keep slowly pushing my boundaries.
Whenever you notice they’re challenging social anxiety, tell them you’re proud of them.
Whether it’s making a phone call they’ve been putting off, finally making it out of the house for the first time in days or making it to a social gathering, being acknowledged will encourage them to keep doing those things.