They used to be called “shy” people. More correctly, those who shun many different types of social interactions may have social anxiety disorder. While it’s normal for all individuals to feel shy, nervous, or socially awkward at times, those who are socially awkward have a disorder the encompasses real fears about being out in public, meeting new people, going on job interviews, and a whole host of other situations. Social anxiety becomes a problem when it permeates virtually every aspect of one’s life and disrupts it.
This disorder is a chronic mental health condition, and its roots often go back to childhood or early adolescence. People with the disorder may feel anxious and afraid in some situations but not in others. They often worry about an event weeks before it happens and may even make up mental scenarios about the outcome and may stay away from events because of that fear. Some sufferers may find it hard to make or keep friends. The disorder is more common than you think. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately seven percent of Americans experience some level of excessive anxiety.
Excessive anxiousness manifests itself in a variety of ways. For some, it comes as a performance-related problem, such as the inability to speak in front of a crowd or a reduction in ability when playing sports. Whichever way it manifests, it restricts an individual from reaching his or her full potential.
Signs of Social Anxiety
Extreme social awkwardness manifests itself through emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms. Emotional and behavioral signs may not be readily apparent to other people, but socially awkward individuals have persistent thoughts that include:
- Fear of being judged
- Feelings of embarrassment or humiliation
- Finding it difficult to interact with strangers
- Wondering if others will notice that you look anxious, are blushing, trembling sweat or having other physical symptoms that indicate nervousness
- Experiencing intense anxiety ahead of an activity or an event
- Enduring that activity with intense fear or anxiety
- Expecting the worst wors possible outcome in a social situation
- Fear that others are judging you
- Reliving social interactions after the fact and identifying flaws in your actions
Children act differently when suffering from anxiety and can start crying, have temper tantrums, become clingy, or even refuse to speak. They also worry about being embarrassed in front of children but not in front of adults.
Some sufferers show physical symptoms, giving onlookers visual clues that they are extremely anxious. These include:
- Blushing, sweating, trembling
- Rapid heart rate or palpitations
- Feeling nauseated or abdominal discomfort
- Rigid body posture
- Inability to make eye contact
- Clammy or cold hands
- Difficulty talking
- Dry mouth and throat
- Losing balance and stumbling
Causes of Social Awkwardness
As with many other mental health disorders, extreme social awkwardness arises from a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors. The disorder often runs in families, yet researchers do not understand why some family members have it while others do not. Several parts of the brain are involved in processing fear and anxiety. Misreading the behavior of others can play a part as well as underdeveloped social skills. Researchers are also looking into more ways in which stress and environmental factors play a role.
Several studies cited by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) indicate the individuals who have at least one parent suffering from social fears have a 30 percent to 40 percent greater chance of developing the condition. What is unclear, however, is how much of this tendency is due to genetic traits, and how much is determined by parenting style, which is another factor. Recent research has focused on changes of a gene involved in transporting serotonin, the chemical involved in soothing nerves, and stabilizing moods. One theory indicates that one of these faulty genes could be passed from parents to children.
The portion of the brain called the amygdala plays a role in controlling fear response. Those with anxiety disorders may suffer from hyperactivity in this portion of the brain. Brain scans have indicated that an overactive amygdala increases the fight-or-flight response to cause intense anxiety in social situations and triggers symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, tightened muscles, and interruption of thinking process that leaves sufferers unable to reason normally.
In most people, the brain’s prefrontal cortex calms those reactions, but for those suffering from intense anxiety, the prefrontal cortex actually amplifies feelings of fear. The fear of other people’s reactions is so entrenched in sufferers that their brains interpret these fears as legitimate threats so that rational thought to calm those fears is impossible.
Negative parenting styles have an effect on excessive anxiety in social situations. Parents who are overcontrolling, reluctant to show affection, quick to criticize, and overly concerned with other’s opinions influence a child’s self-image and impression of the world. These children become more fearful and are less trusting of others when raised in such an environment and often have problems with self-confidence and self-esteem. For many individuals who suffer from questionable parenting, symptoms often start to manifest in late childhood or adolescence, but they are not diagnosed until adulthood.
Some research points to the theory that extreme social fears may be learned behavior because of stressful life events and trauma. Traumatic experiences often reinforce the idea that the world is frightening and unpredictable. Similar to questionable parenting, these experiences have more of an impact of they occur in childhood or adolescence, but they also affect some adults. Suffers can developed learned anxiety behaviors from their reactions to the following events:
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Family conflicts and domestic violence
- Bullying or teasing by peers
- Death or desertion by a loved one
- New social or work demands
- Having an appearance or condition that increases feelings of self-consciousness
The Role of Technology
The recent explosion in technology has lead to another cause of extreme social awkwardness. Many people don’t spend much time interacting in person because of texting, social media, and apps that allow people to communicate without meeting. The increasing amount of online content makes us even more isolated. The more you use online communications instead of developing in-person relationships, the more prone you become to developing extreme anxiety or social awkwardness.
Is It Bad to Be Socially Awkward?
Everyone faces situations from time to time where they feel socially awkward. Some people are born with a behaviorally inhibited temperament, otherwise known as shyness. This trait shows up as early as infancy and often plays a part in the development of extreme anxiety. Shy children often develop insecure attachments and are prone to withdrawing from social situations even later in life, which can lead to social awkwardness. However, not all shy people develop extreme anxiety disorder. Social awkwardness, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing, but recognizing that you are socially awkward indicates that you need to change some behaviors such as learning how to recognize social cues so that you can become more comfortable in a reader range of situations.
Dealing With Social Anxiety
Knowing that you have social awkwardness or extreme shyness can make you feel even worse about yourself. The good news is, though, that you don’t have to live with it for the rest of your life. Being afraid and living your life at home can become a thing of the past. Connections in the brain are plastic, which means that you can learn, with the help of medical professionals, to change your thinking and overcome social awkwardness. It doesn’t happen overnight, but with due diligence, a good mental healthcare provider, and supportive people in your life, overcoming social anxiety and shyness can become a reality.
Methods to Treat Anxiety Disorders
The first step is talking to your general health care professional as he or she can refer you to a mental health care provider who can make a diagnosis and start an effective treatment. Treating social awkwardness usually involves psychotherapy and/or medication.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy, is one of the most effective forms of treatment and is almost always recommended by health care professionals to combat shyness and excessive social awkwardness. CBT helps you talk through your fears with and learn how to manage the. Group sessions with other suffers can be particularly helpful. While most CBT is performed on an out-patient basis, some of the most severely affected patients initially enter in-patient programs. Ongoing support groups can help sufferers maintain their progress, are also helpful for helping some patients manage their progress.
Some patients may require prescription medications to alleviate their extreme anxiety in social situations. The three used are anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, and beta-blockers. Anti-anxiety medications begin working immediately, but because they can be highly addictive mental health professionals only prescribe them for short periods. Antidepressants are also useful for treating some symptoms, but these can take longer to work. Beta-blockers are prescribed primarily to performance anxiety sufferers.
What You Can Do on Your Own
In addition to getting help as early as possible you can take steps on your own to minimize the impact of severe anxiety by trying these tips:
- Keep a journal that details your triggers and what seems to make you feel better
- Prioritize tasks in your life and make sure to take time for yourself to reduce anxiety
- Avoid unhealthy substance use including alcohol, drugs, nicotine and even caffeine
Determining the causes of your anxiety is essential to getting the right treatment. Although extreme anxiety in social situations can prevent you from living a full life, remember that it is also one of the most highly treatable and best managed mental health disorders.