How to Overcome Social Anxiety Disorder
How to Let Go of Your Fears
Think of a time when you had to give a presentation, interview for a job you really wanted, went on your first date, or attended a meeting or event at which you knew no one. Chances are you experienced some level of anxiety preceding and during the experience.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the number one fear in America is public speaking. Along these lines, Mark Twain quipped, “There are two types of speakers. Those who get nervous and those who are liars!”
Clearly, anxiety over high pressure social situations like speaking in public is a natural and normal response. However, many people experience significant anxiety in nearly all social contexts. They exhibit excessive, irrational behavior and fear in interactions with others. This form of anxiety is not normal and may constitute social anxiety disorder or social phobia.
An estimated 19.2 million Americans suffer from social anxiety disorder. In fact, social anxiety ranks as the third most prevalent psychological disorder in the country. This condition consists of feelings of uneasiness, dread, or apprehension about social interactions. Typically, these feelings of anxiety stem from concern that one is being scrutinized and judged negatively by others—even when there’s no cause to believe this is truly the case.
The person is scared that they will be embarrassed, belittled, or humiliated in front of others. A person with social anxiety disorder may anticipate and stew over a planned encounter to the point of debilitating fear beforehand. This reaction can bring on a panic attack or prompt other irrational behavior.
The following examples usually evoke emotional distress for people with social anxiety disorder:
- Meeting new people
- Being teased or criticized in public
- Finding themselves the center of attention
- Being watched while doing something
- Meeting people in authority
- Any social encounter, especially involving strangers
- Pressure to say something with others present
- Interpersonal relationships, whether friends or romantic
Symptoms of social anxiety may include:
- Pounding heart
- Inability to think straight
- Being tongue tied
- Upset stomach
Social anxiety disorder results from distorted thinking. With this disorder, we entertain false beliefs about social situations and the negative opinions of others. Social anxiety is rooted in the fear that others are out to get us, laugh at us, or think we’re dumb, fat, ugly, or … fill in the blank. Social anxiety is emotionally draining because we’re always on our guard, always suspicious, and never relax in the presence of others.
Left untreated, social anxiety disorder can severely hinder a person’s normal daily routine—anything that involves other people. This could include: riding public transportation, going to work or school, work performance, attending social activities, relating with people under any circumstances, and even leaving home.
Typically, people with social anxiety disorder recognize that their behavior is irrational. But knowing that and being able to do something about are two different things. People with this disorder don’t like the way they respond toward others and wish they were different. This “knowing” often spawns feelings of guilt and inferiority, which exacerbate the problem.
The Causes of Social Anxiety Disorder
Biologically, social anxiety seems to run in the family. Whether this is genetic or learned behavior is another issue. But even if you are genetically disposed does not mean that you are consigned to a future of social anxiety.
Psychologically, a person may have been bullied, made fun of in the past, or experienced some other trauma that triggered social anxiety disorder. These issues too can be overcome.
Environmentally, a person may observe the negative consequences of how others are treated and respond in fear to avoid such treatment themselves. Children who are overprotected by their parents and not allowed to develop social relationships with others may not learn good social skills. But it is never too late to learn!
Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder
Mainstream Drug Treatments
As is so common with Americans, we frequently reach for a pill to solve our problems. And in the case of Social Anxiety Disorder there are numerous drugs on the market prescribed to treat this disorder. Ironically, many of these drugs bear side effects common to the very issue they purportedly address! Below are two examples of drugs (Zoloft and Prozac) commonly prescribed for social anxiety disorder.
Zoloft – “Common side effects of Zoloft include sleepiness, nervousness, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, headache, diarrhea, constipation, upset stomach, stomach pain, changes in appetite, abnormal ejaculation, impotence, decreased sex drive, difficulty having an orgasm, dry mouth, and weight loss.” 
Prozac – “Side effects of Prozac include nausea, upset stomach, constipation, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, drowsiness, dizziness, nervousness, heart palpitations, loss of appetite or increase in appetite, weight changes, cold symptoms (stuffy nose, sneezing, sore throat), dry mouth, decreased sex drive, impotence, or difficulty having an orgasm. Some patients may experience withdrawal reactions such nausea, nervousness, and insomnia upon stopping Prozac.”
Based on those side effects, one might well observe that if you didn’t have social anxiety disorder before taking those drugs, you might certainly develop it after taking them!
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
The most effective treatment currently available for social anxiety disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to “guide the person’s thoughts in a more rational direction and help the person stop avoiding social situations that once caused anxiety. It teaches people to react differently to the situations that trigger their anxiety symptoms.”
A primary goal of CBT is training you to be your own therapist. In this regard, there are a number of self-guided manuals available. Many people with social anxiety disorder are making great progress by following the book, The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Step-by-Step Techniques for Overcoming Your Fear by Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., and Richard P. Swinson, M.D.
You can also begin to transform your mind and thoughts away from anxiety by reading and meditating on Scripture. God designed us for relationship with Him and with others. You were made for relationships. By meditating on what He says about relationships and implementing those principles into our lives, we can overcome many of our social difficulties.
Also, He knows us intimately—even better than we know ourselves. In addition to that, He loves us unconditionally, so we can trust Him implicitly. Because He knows us so well and loves us so much, in the Bible He has given us instructions, examples, and encouragement on how we can interact with others in a healthy manner.
For instance, check out the following passages regarding our relationship with God and others:
- Psalm 139:1-4, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely.”
- Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
- Matthew 10:28, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”
- Romans 12:10, 16, “Be devoted to one another in love. Live in harmony with one another.”
- Philippians 4:6-8, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things”.
Ask God to help you with your response toward others. “For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7) Because God has not made us timid and fearful of others, we can depend on Him to help us overcome this problem.
Whatever anxiety or discouragement we might have about our relationships there is always more growth, peace, and blessing that God’s grace can bring.
Additional Anxiety Help
Other positive steps you can take that may help you overcome social anxiety disorder include:
- Getting plenty of rest
- Eating nutritiously
- Exercising regularly
- Applying music and chroma (light) therapy.
All of these solutions are important for squelching anxiety and achieving peace and joy in your life.
When I was 12 years old, I recognized that I was painfully shy. I knew that I didn’t want to be that way. So, I asked my parents to send me away to camp for a week, knowing that it would push me out of my comfort zone. I went, not knowing another soul there!
My camp experience had the desired effect. Because no one there knew me, I started all my relationships with a clean slate. I began to relate with others—even strangers—in ways I had not formerly tried. It opened my horizons and changed me profoundly.
How about you? What steps will you take from those provided above to reach out to others and turn a phobia into a pleasure in which you’re able to truly enjoy the company of others?
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