If you are someone with social anxiety disorder, most people probably don’t realize how much you are actually suffering. Public speaking doesn’t just make you nervous, it actually makes you panic. When you’re in a group, you think everyone is watching you. You’re convinced that they think you’re a laughing stock, and you shouldn’t even be there. You wish you were at home instead of in this horrible situation.
But this doesn’t just happen to you when you’re in a social situation. Just the thought of a party or meeting makes you nervous. You think about what excuse you can use again to not have to go. You would give anything to escape, but what can you do?
What is a Social Anxiety Disorder?
First, let’s take a look at what a social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, actually is. Anxiety disorders are, essentially, intense fears about specific stimuli or situations. This fear is, of course, irrational. It overtakes you even though there is no real danger. You feel it at times when it is not necessary, and to a much greater degree than you should. It disrupts your normal daily life, while this is totally unnecessary.
Social anxiety disorders manifest themselves in situations of social interaction. And since we are in constant contact with other people, it is only natural that our daily lives are affected quite drastically. Now if we have a phobia of spiders or snakes, we can simply choose to avoid them as much as we can. We would not have this fear on a daily basis. This is of course very different with social anxiety.
The fact is that we can all get nervous when we meet new people or when we are about to speak in public. Most of the time, though, we manage to get over it and even end up enjoying the experience. This does not apply to people with social anxiety disorder. Their fear is so great that the experience will negatively affect their behavior, which will unfortunately only reinforce the fear.
How do the cognitive biases of people with social phobia work?
It is very important to emphasize that social anxiety disorder has a significant impact on what and how we think. Let me explain. We all have cognitive biases based on which our brain processes the information we experience around us.
People with social anxiety disorder are generally sensitive to whether others are watching them or not. Their bodies clearly show the discomfort they feel in the form of blushing, a trembling voice etc. As a result, the people around them tend to judge them negatively. But not only that, in their minds people with social anxiety disorder amplify these negative moments. This ensures that they also approach new social situations in a very negative way.
Let’s take an example. A person with social anxiety disorder will be more sensitive to other people’s gestures when talking to them, and will interpret these gestures as signs that they don’t like him. During the conversation, he might remember a specific situation where he didn’t get along with new people. This quickly becomes a vicious cycle of negative thoughts. You can probably see exactly what these people are going through right now.
What fears do people with social anxiety disorder have?
Based on what we just explained about cognitive biases, we can now understand the fears people with social phobia face. On the one hand, they are afraid that it will be obvious from them that they are nervous. And on the other hand, they are afraid of becoming the center of attention in social situations.
But not only that. They are also terrified that people look at them or observe what they are doing, or even that they will introduce them to new people. In addition to all this, they are afraid to eat, drink or speak in public, as well as to make phone calls or make appointments.
All of these fears are directly related to one very specific fear – the fear of ridiculing oneself or being judged negatively. In fact, these people actually just assume that this will happen and that is precisely why the fear appears. This fear is so strong that they freeze. Making what they thought would happen actually happen.
The original idea that they are inferior is reinforced, but they do not realize that they are throwing their own glasses. This is why social anxiety disorder requires psychological treatment, preferably one that uses cognitive behavioral therapy. Social phobia is a condition that significantly affects the patient, and it is very complicated to modify these thoughts without the help of a qualified expert.
Images courtesy of Rawpixel, Blake List, and Kevin Curtis.