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Social Anxiety | What it is & How to tell if you have Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder involves intense fear of certain social situations—especially situations that are unfamiliar or in which you feel you’ll be watched or evaluated by others.

Underlying social anxiety disorder is the fear of being scrutinized, judged, or embarrassed in public.

You may be afraid that people will think badly of you or that you won’t measure up in comparison to others.

Some people experience anxiety in most social situations. For others, anxiety is connected to specific social situations, such as speaking to strangers, mingling at parties, or performing in front of an audience.

Common social anxiety triggers:

  • Meeting new people

  • Making small talk

  • Public speaking

  • Performing on stage

  • Being the center of attention

  • Being watched while doing something

  • Being teased or criticized

  • Talking with “important” people or authority figures

  • Being called on in class

  • Going on a date

  • Speaking up in a meeting

  • Using public restrooms

  • Taking exams

  • Eating or drinking in public

  • Making phone calls

  • Attending parties or other social gatherings

Emotional signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder:

  • Excessive self-consciousness and anxiety in everyday social situations

  • Intense worry for days, weeks, or even months before an upcoming social situation

  • Extreme fear of being watched or judged by others, especially people you don’t know

  • Fear that you’ll act in ways that will embarrass or humiliate yourself

  • Fear that others will notice that you’re nervous

Physical signs and symptoms:

  • Red face, or blushing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Upset stomach, nausea (i.e. butterflies)

  • Trembling or shaking (including shaky voice)

  • Racing heart or tightness in chest

  • Sweating or hot flashes

  • Feeling dizzy or faint

Behavioral signs and symptoms:

  • Avoiding social situations to a degree that limits your activities or disrupts your life

  • Staying quiet or hiding in the background in order to escape notice and embarrassment

  • A need to always bring a buddy along with you wherever you go

  • Drinking before social situations in order to soothe your nerves

Ways to Cope with Social Anxiety:

  1. Challenge negative thinking

  2. You must must first become aware that it is happening - bring your attention to your thoughts and just start noticing what comes up

  3. Write down a list of all of the negative thoughts that come up when you think about or are actually engaging in a social situation

  4. Analyze and challenge these thoughts - “how likely is that?” “how true is that?” “how much do I REALLY care what other people think?” “Could I be overthinking it?” “How much of a threat is this really?”

  5. Identify the unhelpful thinking style: i) mind reading - assuming you know what other people are thinking ii) Fortune telling - predicting the future, usually assuming the worst is going to happen “I just know that _______ is going to happen.” iii) catastrophizing - blowing things out of proportion iv) personalizing - assuming that people are focusing on you in a negative way of what’s going on with other people has to do with you

2) Focus on others, not yourself

  1. Focus your attention on other people - not in a negative way, try to make a connection with others by focusing on asking them questions and learning more about them.

  2. Anxiety isn’t as visible as you think - even if they do notice, it’s probably not as bad as you think. Everyone is able to relate to the feeling of being nervous, they’re likely not thinking as negatively as you think

  3. Focus on the present moment - the past is gone and the future hasn’t happened yet. Practice mindfulness to stay present

  4. Release the pressure to be perfect - focus on being genuine and attentive - others appreciate this

3) Learn to control your breathing - when we feel anxious, we have a tendency to breathe more quickly and; thus, increase the oxygen in our body. This can lead to hyperventilation, feeling dizzy, and even lead to increased heart rate, and muscle tension

  1. Sit comfortably - back straight, shoulders relaxed. Put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach

  2. Inhale slowly in through your nose, count to 4, the hand on your stomach should rise, and the hand on your stomach should move very little

  3. Exhale slowly - out of your mouth for 6 seconds, pushing out as much air as you can. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little

  4. Continue to breathe - in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on breathing in for 4 counts, hold for 2 counts, and out for 6 counts

4) Face Your Fears - the more you avoid the situation, the more it has control over you. Start small and begin exposing yourself to anxiety-inducing situations and work your way up the “anxiety ladder” to build your confidence.

  1. Don’t try to face your biggest fear right away - things could backfire and reinforce your anxiety

  2. Be patient - this will take some time - overcoming social anxiety is a gradual, step-by-step process

  3. Use the skills you’ve learned to stay calm - breathing and challenging negative assumptions

  • Step 1: Say “hello” to your co-workers.

  • Step 2: Ask a co-worker a work-related question.

  • Step 3: Ask a co-worker what they did over the weekend.

  • Step 4: Sit in the break room with co-workers during your coffee break.

  • Step 5: Eat lunch in the break room with your co-workers.

  • Step 6: Eat lunch in the break room and make small talk with one or more of your coworkers, such as talking about the weather, sports, or current events.

  • Step 7: Ask a co-worker to go for a coffee or drink after work.

  • Step 8: Go out for lunch with a group of co-workers.

  • Step 9: Share personal information about yourself with one or more co-workers.

  • Step 10: Attend a staff party with your co-workers.

5) Make an effort to be more social

  1. Take a social skills class - local community college or adult education center

  2. Volunteer doing something you enjoy

  3. Work on your communication skills - seek resources on emotional intelligence

6) Adapt an anti-anxiety lifestyle

  1. Avoid or limit caffeine - these stimulants increase anxiety

  2. Get active - 30 minutes per day, pair it with something enjoyable like shopping

  3. Add more omega 3 fats to your diet - supports brain health and can improve your mood, outlook, and ability to handle anxiety

  4. Drink only in moderation - alcohol actually increases your chances of having an anxiety attack

  5. Quit smoking - nicotine increases anxiety

  6. Get enough quality sleep - sleep deprivation increases anxiety

7) Treatment

  1. Learn how to control the physical symptoms of anxiety through relaxation techniques and breathing

  2. Challenge negative thoughts that fuel anxiety and replace them with more balanced views

  3. Face the social situation you fear - in a graudal, systemic way rather than avoiding them

  4. Role playing, social skills training, and CBT techniques - ask your therapist about these techniques that will help you work through your anxiety in real time

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Blue Sage Counseling and Wellness, and the information provided by Ashley Francis, is solely intended for informational and entertainment purposes and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis, or treatment regarding medical or mental health conditions. Although Ashley Francis is a licensed marriage and family therapist, the views expressed on this site or any related content should not be taken for medical or psychiatric advice. Always consult your physician before making any decisions related to your physical or mental health.

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