Despite over 15 million Americans being affected by social anxiety disorder (SAD), less than 5% of those with SAD seek treatment within a year of when their symptoms start and more than a third of those people wait more than 10 years before ever seeking treatment for their social anxiety. That’s because many of us have been taught to see social anxiety as nothing more than shyness or introversion—but social anxiety disorder involves a lot more than simply being shy or introverted.
Although those with social anxiety experience feelings of nervousness, worry, or panic from social situations, social anxiety is more generally known as an extreme fear of being criticized, scrutinized, or judged. Much of the worry and fear actually stems from a greater concern of doing or saying something wrong in public and embarrassing yourself in some way. This fear, in turn, can affect how you choose to live your life and what you’re able to accomplish in the long run.
Here are 15 signs social anxiety may be holding you back.
You dread everyday social situations
Social anxiety starts small, usually with only one or two symptoms showing—maybe at first you were only nervous about public speaking or making new friends. But over time, if left untreated, you may find yourself fretting over and eventually dreading more and more of the following everyday social situations:
- Making eye contact
- Going to parties or new places
- Starting a conversation with friends or strangers
- Meeting new people or making friends
- Speaking in public
- Going to work or school
- Eating around other people
- Attending social events or gatherings
This dread can then keep you from enjoying the moment and even make you more nervous of similar situations in the future.
Embarrassing yourself in public terrifies you
When you think about going to a party or speaking up during a meeting at work, you immediately envision making a fool of yourself in some way—doing or saying something that will leave you embarrassed and humiliated. This may leave you even more terrified of embarrassing yourself around others, which ramps up the social anxiety you feel before, during, and after your social interactions. Sometimes, you think about how you could embarrass yourself so much that you decide to just stay in instead.
You dwell on previous mistakes
Simply put, rumination is a kind of obsessive thinking—you repetitively mull over the same thought or problem, usually one in which you feel you made some kind of mistake or social faux pas. For instance, after a social encounter, do you go home and replay the day’s interactions until you’re certain you made some kind of mistake that left the other party offended, if not utterly outraged, and yourself humiliated in the process?
Social anxiety can make turning off this kind of obsessive negative dwelling extremely difficult, but by participating in a ruminating thought process, you inadvertently experience the anxiety of the encounter over and over again while increasing the amount of anxiety you’ll later feel in similar situations.
In this way, social anxiety can be a vicious cycle of worrying about making a mistake so much that you make the mistake you worried about and then returning home to replay it over and over in your head, which sets off the self-fulfilling cycle of over-worrying again.
You perceive your social blunders as much worse than they are.
Do your friends or coworkers have to remind you somewhat regularly that No, so-and-so doesn’t think you’re stupid, you didn’t mess up the presentation, and it’s not as bad as you think. When you make a mistake at work, do you jump straight to worrying about the security of your job?
Likely because of dwelling on your mistakes in item #3, social anxiety can make you not just fear the worst possible conclusions to negative social circumstances but actually come to expect the worst result. As you can imagine, this only makes your anxiety worse when you’re in similar circumstances again.
You’ve worried about how your anxiety affects your life for a while now.
Symptoms of social anxiety often start to occur during childhood or early adolescence, but to be considered social anxiety, these symptoms must persist for at least 6 months. By the time treatment is sought, symptoms have usually been around for a lot longer.
Let’s face it: This probably isn’t the first time you’ve found yourself googling symptoms and signs of social anxiety. You may even have taken online self-assessments already before. But social anxiety and the fear of being judged by others can make seeking treatment for social anxiety a particularly difficult decision for many to make, which often leads to heightened symptoms in the meantime, like the next items on our list.
You get extremely nervous before attending social events.
Before an upcoming social event, whether it’s hours or days away, you get incredibly worried, nervous, or downright panicked about it. You find yourself getting more and more nervous as the time and date approaches. Maybe you can’t sleep the night before, because it’s all you can think about as you toss and turn the night away. Your chest may even feel heavier, and your breathing becomes a little more strained. You would liken it to the jitters of cold feet, but you’ve already sweated your shirt twice in nervous anticipation.
While it’s normal to feel a little anxious or nervous before certain social events, this kind of panic attack can become a normal occurrence before social interactions and events for those with social anxiety disorder—until eventually it seems easier to just avoid the situation entirely, which brings us to the next item on our list.
You avoid social encounters because of anxiety.
During your free time, do you ever find yourself hiding inside, biding your time online or binge-watching show after show? Do you find yourself avoiding doing certain things or going certain places entirely because you don’t want to deal with people there? Are you so scared of making mistakes and being scrutinized that you, instead, don’t put yourself out there and try anymore? At times, does it maybe even feel like you’re becoming afraid of leaving the house, living almost like a hermit?
One of the defining characteristics of social anxiety disorder is avoidance. Over time, those who were once just shy or nervous about public speaking or going to the occasional social event may learn to pacify their growing social anxiety by staying inside their comfort zone at home alone, rather than facing the potentially devastating experiences they imagine to be awaiting them in public.
Avoiding social events and hiding inside, however, greatly limits your life experiences and can only cause you to fear social situations even more later on.
You skip social events if you have to go alone.
Have you ever really wanted to go somewhere, to a festive event like a party or maybe even a concert, only to have the person you were going with cancel at the last minute? Did you decide not to attend the event entirely because you’d have to show up alone? Or maybe you have that incredibly social and extroverted friend you always go out with and borderline cling to in public, because you can rely on them to carry the conversations and social burden for you?
While it can be normal to fear going to a new place alone or going somewhere where you don’t know anyone in the room, it becomes problematic when you let your feelings of fear and panic affect or limit your social life, like our previous sign.
If you’re at the point of blowing off events that you were looking forward to entirely because of someone else’s attendance, social anxiety may be disrupting your social life and keeping you from getting the most out of your life.
You distance yourself from others on purpose.
Are you a bit of a loner—and do you keep it that way intentionally? Even if you want friends and crave meaningful social relationships deep down, those with social anxiety can purposefully push people out of their lives or keep people at a distance, if not avoiding others entirely, as a means of keeping themselves safe from social situations that cause them stress or anxiety. Social anxiety can make it feel easier to be alone than to be around other people, which contributes to why it’s so hard to seek treatment for this disorder.
Your physical symptoms of social anxiety cause you anxiety.
When you’re trying to share your point of view with a group, whether it’s at work or in a small social group, your voice may crack or you stumble over a certain word, your body shake or tremble, and you begin to sweat profusely—so much so that you worry others can see this or, worse, it’s all they can notice as you speak.
With social anxiety, you don’t just suffer from an array of emotional and behavioral symptoms—your social anxiety also manifests itself in physical ways, which, in turn, tend to cause you even more anxiety over whether anyone has noticed these physical displays of anxiety.
You’re a people-pleasing perfectionist.
With social anxiety, avoidance behaviors and approval-seeking behaviors go hand in hand, representing two sides of the same coin. While some may choose to avoid the triggers of their social anxiety, others may pacify their anxiety and the fear of being judged or evaluated by garnering the approval of others and seeking external validation in people-pleasing ways. This can be through over-complimenting others, doing or saying what you think someone else wants, or even avoiding saying something you think might upset others.
Because of how uncomfortable and borderline panicked you are at the thought of upsetting or disappointing someone, you’ll go through great lengths to make sure everyone else is happy—at almost any cost to yourself.
You put off simple social tasks.
Social anxiety doesn’t just cause you to cut off contact—it can also make you put off whatever activity on your To-Do list is causing you stress for as long as possible. Sometimes this can be something as simple as making a phone call, sending an email, paying your bills on time, scheduling a doctor’s appointment, or any other task that involves anxiety-inducing social interaction.
In the moment, it can feel almost as if you’re frozen—you know what you have to do, but thinking about doing it causes you so much stress and anxiety that all you want to do is avoid doing it. In most cases, though, these are tasks that inevitably must be done and, usually, come with some degree of consequences if ignored even momentarily.
Worse, procrastinating and putting off the stressful task at hand often actually worsens your anxiety—you keep yourself from enjoying the moment fully, because in the back of your head, you’re still stressing over what you have to do later.
Digital communications are easier for you.
If you’re getting in touch with someone, it’s going to be via technological means—emailing, texting, instant messaging, etc.—rather than calling, stopping by their desk or place to chat, or another in-person means of communicating. If you’re going to try dating, it’s going to start on dating apps. If you make a social media account, your profile picture is probably an avatar of some kind.
For those with social anxiety, communicating online, usually in ways that are either anonymous or text only, represents a kind of double-edged sword, offering the consolation of human interaction without the drawbacks of in-person communication.
However, while digital communications offer the socially anxious the immediate benefit of short-term relief, studies have shown that online communication can make communicating offline and in-person more challenging over time.
You don’t try new things anymore.
Going to new places and trying new things represent two obstacles those with social anxiety often struggle with. Because you’ve spent so much time imagining all of the many ways things could go wrong and you could possibly embarrass yourself, you can’t imagine going somewhere new or doing something new, since there are so many new ways for you to make a mistake or be judged.
For the socially anxious, it can become all too easy to fall into a kind of unchanging rut, visiting only the same restaurants because you know what to expect and, more importantly, how to not embarrass yourself in that setting.
You’ve come to rely on alcohol and substances in social situations
Social anxiety can make being in the midst of the crowd a highly stressful place to be. Not only are you worried about fitting in, you’re worried about somehow having to come up with what to say, which, of course, can’t be anything less than charming, witty banter, but your words are already starting to fail you and you just can’t seem to think of a single thing to say. Your mind is somehow totally blank.
In times like these, it can be all too easy to turn to the bottle to pacify your social fears and free your inner social butterfly of all those pesky inhibitions. Maybe this tactic has worked for you in the past before, like at parties during college or at the office’s holiday party.
Not only can this type of behaviour become physically unhealthy, it can actually lead to worse social anxiety the next day, when you potentially only remember glimpses of your actions and bits of your humorous anecdotes. Your mind can then spiral and reel as you ruminate over what you did when freed of your inhibitions, which makes it harder for you to go out and enjoy yourself next time around.
Does This Sound Like You? You Can Do Something About It!
If any of these sound like you, don’t worry—social anxiety disorder is actually highly treatable for those who seek professional guidance. Therapy can help you address the automatic negative thought processes underlying your social anxiety, those that usually center around your being inadequate or a “failure” in some way. Oftentimes, simply addressing the root of those internal negative thoughts can provide relief.
But the first step is reaching out and seeking help. If you’re in the Chicago area, consider speaking with a therapist at the Bergen Center of Counseling, where each therapist is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be particularly helpful in treating social anxiety. Simply fill out the form on the right to get started!
Struggling with social anxiety at work? Find out how to overcome your workplace anxieties here.