A Deeper Look Into What Causes Social Anxiety And How You Can Overcome It

by Will Zhou

One thing I’m sure about is that we have all have social anxiety, to some degree.

For most of us, it’s mild and controllable. Perhaps you get butterflies in your stomach prior to making a speech, but once the words start flowing, the butterflies go away. After the speech, you realize that the anxiety was actually quite irrational. And though you were nervous, you didn’t let those feelings destroy the delivery of the speech.

But for others, social anxiety can be crippling. Some experience fear so intense during certain situations that just visualizing the situations can be terrifying. Furthermore, the fear can induce side effects, like nausea and lightheadedness.

I admit that I’ve been there before. In high school, I hated being called on in class, particularly when I felt unprepared. In those moments, my face started burning up and my heart started to pound in my chest. I’d either stutter or I’d talk twice as quickly as normal. It was highly embarrassing and I didn’t know why I became so anxious in these situations.

What is social anxiety and what causes it?

Simply put, social anxiety is the fear of being negatively evaluated by others. Oftentimes, it goes hand-in-hand with participating in an activity that is outside of the comfort zone. Think public speaking or performing on a stage or interacting with an “important” person. These aren’t activities that we seek out on a regular basis — things we’re not used to doing tend to induce anxiety.

However, for others, something seemingly as mundane as making phone calls or using public restrooms can induce social anxiety. Even eating alone in public is a terrifying proposition for some. There’s definitely a wide spectrum of activities that can trigger anxiety and the reason that it happens is, as humans, we don’t want to be looked at as incompetent or inadequate.

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to look good in the eyes of others. Ever hear of the “spotlight effect?” The phenomenon explains how we overestimate the extent to which people notice our appearances and behaviors. Imagine this — one day, during lunch, you’re having fries and you inadvertently get ketchup on your shirt. In your mind, the stain sticks out like a sore thumb, but in reality, not even close to everyone will notice it. And, if it does get noticed, you likely won’t be judged negatively. In these cases, a lot of anxiety is actually self-induced.

There have been a lot of studies regarding what causes social anxiety and the results show that highly anxious individuals concentrate more on internal cues, which are their own bodily changes, such as blushing or increased heart rate.

Unfortunately, this internal focus results in a vicious cycle. The person who is “in the spotlight” believes that everyone can see the internal cues and will consequently result in negative judgment. Because of this, the internal cues become even more amplified. A pink face can turn into a tomato-red face and a slight increase in heart rate can turn into the heart trying to jump out of the chest.

How can I overcome social anxiety?

There are a couple of tricks that can help reduce social anxiety.

Understand the “spotlight effect.”

Realize that even during our most embarrassing moments, people aren’t judging us as harshly as we imagine.

Focus on external cues.

Shift the focus from what’s going on inside your body to what’s going on in your environment. For instance, let’s say an acquaintance invites you to a party this weekend.

You go alone, and you don’t know anyone else there. If this is a situation that causes anxiety, then start focusing on external cues. Observe the layout of the place, the color of the walls, if there are any interesting decorations and what people are wearing. You can even go deeper – for example, who’s wearing the coolest shoes? If you repeatedly focus on external cues during anxiety-filled situations, you can improve your social anxiety over time.

Make a speech and videotape it.

Social anxiety is triggered because we fear the way others view us. Try to videotape yourself so you can see what everyone else sees.

Make a public speech and record yourself. When you go back to watch the tape, examine your behavior. Did your blush? Did you stutter? Did you speak too quickly? Did your hands shake? Did you say “like” a hundred times?

Were you anxious during the speech? Perhaps you thought your face turned bright red, but after watching the tape, you noticed that you were barely blushing. Still, the audience will notice your blushing at an even lesser degree.

If you were highly anxious during the speech, chances are, you probably performed better than you thought you did. Videotaping is also beneficial because it shows you where you can improve. Sometimes, improvement comes from knowledge as simple as being aware of the mistakes that you are making.

Force yourself into awkward situations

Again, social anxiety goes hand-in-hand with being outside of your comfort zone. If you are consistently pushing the limits of your comfort zone, you’ll be less anxious, even in awkward situations. Check out a few things that you can do to challenge yourself:

1. Go to a café and negotiate a 10 percent discount on a coffee. Do it with a straight face. If they ask why, make something up. If you don’t drink coffee, do this with something else.

2. Go into a crowded area and ask three strangers to scratch your back.

3. BONUS CHALLENGE: Tell a stranger that you’re trying out for American Idol and that you want a critique on your singing. Sing to the stranger for 15 seconds.

Did you do all three challenges or did you chicken out? If you did manage to do all three, reflect on the scenarios. Did they result in anything negative? Probably not!

Social anxiety shouldn’t be viewed as purely negative. For those who have it, it shouldn’t be thought of as a stigma. In fact, those who have never experienced social anxiety probably haven’t stepped outside the limits of their comfort zones. So, embrace social anxiety, go out and do something that scares you!

Photo via We Heart It