If you feel butterflies in your stomach when meeting new people or just shopping in a busy store… try to focus on the ‘future moment’ and leave behind the anxiety of the ‘present moment.’

Everyone is confronted with situations outside their comfort zone. If feeling nervous and anxious happens in everyday run-off-the-mill situations, that may be cause for concern, as you could be suffering from social anxiety disorder.

resilience umbrella

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is characterized by emotional and physical symptoms. These symptoms include overwhelming fear or anxiety during social situations, fear of behaving in a manner that will be humiliating, fear of blushing, trembling, dizziness, sweating, a fast heartbeat, even nausea.

Of note, symptoms of social anxiety disorder can change with time. Symptoms may flare up in situations where you’re experiencing lots of change or stress, or greater demands on your life.

Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia is a type of anxiety disorder marked by a notable amount of fear in social situations. It occurs in roughly 5 to 10% of people worldwide, making it one of the most common anxiety disorders. It affects women more than men and typically appears in individuals before the age of twenty.

Social anxiety disorder is believed to arise from a mix of various environmental and biological factors. For instance, it runs in families. Twin studies have demonstrated that social anxiety has a heritable component.

In terms of environmental factors, studies show that adverse childhood life events including exposure to marital conflict, maternal mental illness, and physical abuse increase the risk of developing social anxiety disorder. For instance, a study found that females are one and a half times more likely to develop social anxiety disorder if they experienced the effects of marital conflict when they were kids.

Living with Social Anxiety

Social anxiety can affect all areas of a person’s life. On average, those who suffer from social anxiety have fewer friends and find it harder to maintain those friendships. They’re also less likely to marry or have children, and are more likely to divorce. They tend to take more days off from work and have lower productivity. They also tend to earn 10% less than the general population.

If left untreated, social anxiety can wreak major havoc in life. Eighty percent of adults who have a primary diagnosis of social anxiety disorder will develop at least one other psychiatric disorder during their lifetime. The majority will also develop depressive disorder (70%) followed by affective disorder (close to 65%). Other disorders that tend to occur include substance use disorder (about 20%). Substance use disorder can arise when individuals try using alcohol and drugs to manage their social anxiety disorder.

Watching Movies in the Mind and in a Screen

People with social anxiety disorder have negative beliefs about themselves. For instance, thoughts like “I’m stupid” or “I’m a failure” often play in their heads. These negative views of themselves play a key role in the development and maintenance of social anxiety disorder.

Therefore, mindful framing and mindfulness practices can help frame anxiety triggered by ‘present and past moment’ situations. The key to social healing is to be open for any ‘future moments’, as intriguing and enriching experiences in social interactions.

The main goal of mindful framing is to set aside negative and self-defeating thoughts while visualizing positively the upcoming social interaction. Mindful framing philosophy relies on VICTOR, instead of VECTOR:

  • V ALUE people. Just focus on others, instead of seeking personal V ALIDATION.
  • I NTEREST, as driver of social interactions, instead of predetermined E XPECTATIONS.
  • C OMPASSION. Communicate with passion, instead of self-defeating C OMPARISONS.
  • T RUST others by seeing their positive facets, instead of replaying social T RAUMAS.
  • O PEN, as main attitude, instead of considering social O MISSIONS.
  • R ESILIENCE. Be ready to take hits and bounce back, instead of having social R EGRETS

In other words, embracing an attitude towards helping others benefits not only the receiver but the giver as well. A study published in 2015 found that engaging in acts of kindness decreased social avoidance in individuals with social anxiety. This may be due to the fact when one does something kind to another person, the person you help is more likely to approve of your actions rather than reject you. Earning this approval consistently thus dampens your fear around social situations.

Another modality for the treatment of social anxiety disorder is mindfulness-based stress reduction. This approach is based on the observation of emotions and self-views with a curious, accepting, and non-judgmental stance. In so doing, one finds it easier to release negative beliefs about oneself. A study demonstrated that mindfulness is as effective as cognitive behavioral group therapy for treating social anxiety disorder. A pilot study found that social anxiety sufferers who received mindfulness therapy combined with smelling the sweat of volunteers had a greater reduction in their symptoms than those who received mindfulness therapy alone.

Cognitive behavioral therapy ia another established line of therapy for social anxiety disorder. It focuses on the identification of negative self-beliefs, and the modification of these self-beliefs to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder. It may be combined with the use of antidepressant medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.

Do you like watching movies? Cinematherapy can work for social anxiety when the audience is embedded into compelling human stories with a ‘character arc’ that portrays the progression from a individual’s psychological or physical challenges towards resolution. By focusing on the personal difficulties, a movie helps the individual understand life from a “third-person” perspective.

Kids and teenagers need prompt intervention, and movies like Netflix’s Komi Can’t Communicate depicting social anxiety in a relatable yet humorous manner can help. Komi strives to meet her goal of making one hundred friends with the help of Todano, whose goal for the year is simply to blend in. During this journey to making one hundred friends, Komi’s communication skills blossom.

Moving, Sleeping and Petting

Physical activity can reduce the symptoms of social anxiety disorder, particularly in adults. Exercise boosts feelings of well-being while reducing anxiety. While all levels of exercise are helpful, research shows that high-intensity exercise has greater effects than low intensity exercise.

Research shows that poor sleep may lead to more social avoidance. In fact, both sleep quantity and sleep quality may lead to more social withdrawal. That’s because poor sleep causes hypersensitivity in the regions of the brain that warn us of humans approaching (a social repulsion signal/antisocial signal) and causes impairments in the regions of the brain that encourage understanding of another person’s intent (a prosocial signal).

Research also shows that poor sleep quality can make cognitive behavior therapy less effective. This is because poor sleep quality may reduce memory consolidation of extinction learning during sessions. Extinction learning refers to the progress made in therapy in which there is a gradual decrease in response to conditioned stimuli when the stimuli are presented without reinforcement. During extinction, a new association with the stimuli is learned which inhibits the expression of the original fear memory.

Some natural ways to improve sleep quality and quantity include: exercising during the day, avoiding caffeine in the evening, avoiding blue light at night, creating a comfortable sleep environment, and following a bedtime routine.

Pet therapy is the therapeutic use of pets to improve an individual’s physical, emotional, cognitive, or social functioning. Pet therapy has been shown to be effective at reducing the stress and social anxiety levels of children with physical disabilities.

When it comes to social anxiety disorder, a service animal can offer various levels of support. These include reminding one to take prescription medications, physically bracing one if one becomes dizzy, providing companionship and support when facing social situations, as well as inspiring conversation that leads to improved social interactions.

In particular, dogs may offer the best help if you suffer from social anxiety as dogs need regular walks. So dogs challenge you to go out, take a walk, and in turn encounter others on your walks. Dogs also tend to be good icebreakers and can take the focus off oneself, making social interactions more enjoyable and bearable.

Relationships and social situations are meant to bring us joy, not anxiety or fear. By getting the support you need and adopting lifestyle focus on mental and physical wellbeing, you can thrive and lead a fulfilling personal and social life.

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