Does someone you love have a social anxiety disorder? How would you know and what do you do?
Let’s start here: You can rule out that one friend that wears the loud, flashy clothes and is all over Instagram; they may have problems, but social anxiety is not it. The issue with figuring out who has a social anxiety disorder is that people with it are actually trying to hide and blend in. But who wouldn’t when your inner dialog sounds like this?
“I have nothing interesting to say, I’m boring.”
“Everyone is staring at me.”
“People can tell how anxious I am “
“I’ll stammer / I’ll blush.”
“I’m sure I look worried.”
“I look and sound stupid.”
To make matters even more painful, individuals with social anxiety disorder have a distorted view of all of their relationships, both casual acquaintances and close friends. According to the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, individuals with social anxiety tend to rate the intimacy of their friendships much lower. That means individuals with social anxiety need a higher degree of reassurance than people without it.
How to spot it.
Social anxiety is more than mere shyness; it’s a painful degree of self-awareness and self-criticism. They tend to avoid social situations or may even use alcohol or drugs beforehand to prepare themselves for social interaction. They tend to avoid social situations, staying the background or make quick exits once they’re there. Often, they cannot speak with authority figures or people they find intimidating. Interestingly, they usually don’t like to eat in public, due to their fear of being critiqued. As elders, they are people that have been in support positions to others, often in the shadows of stronger personalities. Older individuals with social anxiety tend to self-isolate, not because they enjoy isolation, but because they fear judgment and see separation as the only way to get rid of the risk of being judged.
What a friend can do.
It’s not to say that individuals with social anxiety disorder don’t have friends, they just believe those friends are less interested in them and will criticize them more readily than is actually the case. Your job, as a friend of someone with social anxiety disorder, is to reassure them of their importance as a friend, help them explore options for help, and be there with them for the process. But be careful, people with social anxiety are extremely sensitive to anything that sounds like criticism, so make sure everything is done through the lens of supporting and caring for the individual.
And if you are an individual who suffers with social anxiety disorder, here is a link to a workbook which is free to download and can be very helpful. http://www.moodjuice.scot.nhs.uk/shynesssocialphobia.asp
We all have ways that we see the world incorrectly. Psychologists call these cognitive distortions – they act like a funhouse mirror which changes how we look at yourself. We all need to remember to handle other people’s distortions with kindness because we, for sure, have our own. And while you’re at it, treat those kindly too.