HAVE you ever been in a social setting surrounded by strangers you are supposed to talk to and found that you have broken into a sweat, your heart is pounding and you feel like heading for the nearest exit? You may have what is described as social anxiety disorder or social phobia.
It is a common problem and is not just about shyness or awkwardness, which do not necessarily debilitate us.
Social phobia is when we cannot cope or tolerate working with or socialising with others.
Like spiders, heights, flying and many other things, a phobia can be defined as "an extreme or irrational fear of or aversion to something".
Phobias are often something that is part of daily life. While it may seem trivial to others, it certainly is not to the person with a phobia.
But back to social anxiety. Social is any context where there are people you do not know or do not know well.
Anxiety is a stress response but the key difference is that anxiety is described as "anticipatory stress". In other words, the outcome of a given situation is unknown.
The key fear in social anxiety is of receiving a negative evaluation or judgment from someone that could lead to humiliation and rejection.
The person may be expecting to make a fool of themselves and be open to ridicule, being looked at, drawing undesirable attention to themselves and not coping as a result.
When we pair an already stressful future event with an unknown outcome, we picture the event and fill the gap between now and then with negative possibilities.
Our fight/flight/freeze response is activated when we picture the social interaction as a threat, hence the sweaty palms, heart palpitations and the desire to get away or not turn up at all.
The challenge for people who experience this reaction is that it is almost impossible to avoid being around other people unless we lead a hermit-like existence, which is not healthy.
The person may want to be sociable but sees themself as not confident or likeable.
What are some possible ways forward? Work on being in the moment, or observe the traits of confident people and emulate them.
And try not to misread ambiguous social cues like yawning. It helps if you remain objective and go into the situation with a positive expectation.
Rowena Hardy is a facilitator, performance coach and partner of Minds Aligned.
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