Many of us will feel nervous in social situations from time to time. Imagining going on a first date with someone you just met or having the big presentation in front of management, can just make one’s blood pressures rise. All of us struggle with anxiety from time to time, but for some it can become intense and overwhelming specifically in social situations. This is known as social anxiety. If you or someone you know experiences this, then one way to work with it is knowing what “triggers” these feelings. Triggers are environmental or situational factors that can cause anxious reactions. This article is a brief introduction to social anxiety and some common triggers.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, can be categorised as an intense fear or nervousness in public or social situations. It is a surprisingly more common form of anxiety than you may expect. Humans are social beings, we have an innate desire to be liked or accepted by others, and this may lead someone to have higher levels of stress in social situations due to their own fears of rejection. Social anxiety can be conditional or a specific anxiety, like a fear of public speaking, or it can be more general and broader. Although one’s socially anxious symptoms may be quite nuanced, the following are some common characteristics of social anxiety:
- Worrying about situations where others may judge you
- Dreading that you will have to interact with strangers, or be in a large group
- Becoming increasingly anxious leading up to an event or activity
- Fears that others will observe your anxious reactions (blushing, sweating, trembling, shaky or cracking voice, etc.)
- Avoiding or cancelling last minute to social events
- Thoughts and self-analysis of your performance or things you said in social situations take up a large portion of your headspace
Most anxiety disorders are caused by biological factors (genetics or brain chemistry) and environmental factors (trauma or stressful upbringings). These anxiety triggers cause stress responses and are usually linked to people, places, or things. Some common triggers of social anxiety are:
Meeting New People and Making Small Talk
Going to a colleague’s party or starting a new job can mean a lot of new faces, and walking into a room full of people you don’t know, which can be daunting. Even more so if you struggle with social anxiety. The pressure of trying to fit in and make a good impression can weigh heavy on individuals with social anxiety. Additionally, the dreaded small talk that may come when making acquaintances can be triggering. Worrying about saying the right thing, or over analysing what to say to not sound stupid can increase your adrenaline can provoke the fight, flight or freeze response. Having to speak with a figure of authority too may only make things worse.
Dating can be daunting for anyone, and much like meeting new people and making small talk, it can trigger social anxiety. Not only can it feel like you are having to perform or be evaluated by a potential romantic partner, the fear of rejection can be clawing at you from the inside. First dates, making phone calls, texting, when to like or not to like a photo on social media, to sex all can keep one triggered in their dating experience, and may lead to avoiding dating altogether.
Performing and Being the Center of Attention
We’ve all been told “Just pretend they are all in their underwear” to help calm nerves – if only it that easy! Public speaking, giving a presentation in front of the boss, performing a dance or musical piece, or competing in athletics can initiate the stress responses. You may be fine practicing at home, but once all eyes are on you or you’re being evaluated, the pressure might be too much. Triggers like this can get in the way of career advancement or enjoying the things you like.
Eating and Drinking Publicly
Dining out with others, even those that we are familiar with, can immediately be a nightmare for someone with social anxiety. Due to your uneasiness of crowds or unfamiliar environments, your heart may be racing as soon as you arrive. It can be triggering to look at the menu, you have to order something that wouldn’t be too difficult to eat because you don’t want to look silly, or something too messy because you don’t want to create a mess. Now that you’re in fight or flight mode, your hands may be shaky or you feel nauseous, making you worried that you’ll spill your drink, choke on your food, or get sick right at the table. To top it off, you’re worried about others observing how you’re eating and behaving and suddenly going out for a meal can be one of your worst triggers.
Using a Public Bathroom
Most of us, if we could avoid it, would probably prefer not to use a public bathroom for one reason or another. Unpleasant odours aside, a noisy, unfamiliar environment, full of strangers can trigger anxiety around doing something as private and intimate as using the bathroom. You might have no problem going at home, but when it comes to a public toilet it may just not happen, or you avoid it all together. For those who have difficulties with social anxiety, using a public bathroom is like a performance, worrying about who can hear you and see you and if you’re being judged. Additionally, you or someone you know may also suffer from a shy bladder, or paruresis, which is a non-medical difficulty urinating, usually related to anxiety.
Going “Back to Normal” After the Lockdowns
Periods of uncertainty and change of any kind can cause anyone stress. For those who struggle with social anxiety, the pandemic and lockdown may have been a blessing in disguise. You got to cancel plans with colleagues due to restrictions, or you may have enjoyed having a mask on so no one could judge how you looked. As the world gradually opens back up again and we make it to our “New Normal,” those pressures and expectations to socialise or perform in social situations may be calling back, thus elevating levels of anxiety.
As previously mentioned, one of the first things to do to combat and work with your social anxiety is to know your triggers. When you know what is causing your stress, then you can learn to prepare for or work with those stressors. You can also find some useful tips located in another one of our articles here.
If you are not sure whether you are suffering from social anxiety or another form of anxiety disorder, or are looking for more help managing your anxiety, then speak with one of our therapists at Spectrum Mental Health.