You Have Friends With Social Anxiety. But You Might Not Know It.

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Social anxiety is often misunderstood.

Let’s face it. We’ve all felt out of place in a social situation, at one time or another. So when we hear the words “social anxiety,” our natural response is often to think yep, I’ve been there.

But while everyone feels socially awkward occasionally, social anxiety isn’t the same thing as that one time we embarrassed ourselves at a party or felt put on the spot in front of our co-workers.

It’s more complex and, unfortunately, more severe than that.

The fear is real, friends.

In social situations, people with social anxiety experience fear comparable to what others feel when there is an actual physical threat present. Mentally and emotionally, feelings of panic and uneasiness set in. And then, due to how consuming their worry and self-consciousness can be, actual medically detectable symptoms can set in. They can become nauseous, dizzy, and short of breath, for example. And they may experience sweaty hands, dry mouth, and numbness in their hands and feet, which can lead to their hearts racing, panic attacks, and trouble sleeping.

In other words, their bodies produce symptoms that others may encounter with the flu or other illness.

In addition, while the average person may feel uncomfortable in certain social situations–parties where they don’t know anyone or meetings where they have to present to their peers, for example–people who struggle with social anxiety worry intensely about everyday social situations.

It’s hard to socialize normally when your body is betraying you.

As is logical, people who struggle with social anxiety are often unable to relax and be themselves around others because they are plagued by fear of rejection.

Unfortunately, the pressure to perform well in public makes an ordinary social engagement feel like a minefield of trap doors they can fall through…by not being liked, losing friends, offending people, making a fool of themselves, and so on.

All this worry and behavior analysis can then end up backfiring because their behavior can seem forced, fake, or unusual even though all they’re trying to do is be nice.

Do you know someone who freezes up or acts awkwardly in certain social situations? Consider the following tips to help encourage them toward feeling welcome and at ease.

How You Can Help

    1. Invite them along before they have to figure out how to extend an invitation to you…or, even worse, try to score a pity-invite. Even if they say no to one invitation, invite them again. They may not be feeling brave enough to face their fears that day, but could have the energy for a great time on another occasion. Also, repeated invitations may provide helpful reassurance that their presence is truly wanted.
    2.  Be clear about what you’re inviting them to do. If it’s a small group of familiar people, say so. If it’s an enormous group of strangers, say that too.
    3. Invest in their comfort. Sit with them and talk, compliment them to others nearby, introduce them to others, and help guide the conversation toward including everyone. And whatever you do, don’t forget about them while you have a three hour soul-to-soul conversation or a crazy dance off with other people…while they wallflower it up on the sidelines. This is their worst nightmare.
    4. Don’t take it personally if they respond to you in atypical ways. Sometimes they don’t text back, leave Facebook replies, or call because they’re over analyzing what they would say and they are fearful of misplaying what seems like a simple, normal life interaction to you.
    5. Respect their energy level. When people who struggle with social anxiety have been socializing for a long time, it can often become draining. They lose physical energy and can even begin to feel sick as their bodies internalize stress.
    6. Forgive them if they sometimes seem insecure. It’s not a sign that they are immature or have nothing great to offer the world, it’s just a sign that they’re not confident or comfortable sharing it in a certain situation.
    7. Don’t feel bad if they don’t seem to reciprocate as fast or as much as you do. They may not be quick to volunteer to host a get-together for your group, even if you hosted the last three in a row. That’s not because they’re selfish or because they don’t value you. It’s because they need to interact in ways that allow them to feel safe and secure so they can enjoy the friendships at all.
    8. Feel good about yourself if they tell you about their social fears. That signifies trust. They see you as someone who may try to help offer them support, who is “with” them as they face the outside world.
    9. They may not deal with change well. If you cancel on them, if you move, if you start dating, it may trigger their fears and insecurities and destabilize them briefly (or for a longer period of time). It likely took a lot of work for them to grow accustomed to you and fall into a rhythm of friendship that felt good to them. Once they’ve finally found comfort, they hate to mess with it. And any new circumstances force them back to fearing that these changes might negatively impact their standing with you and others.
    10. Accept that worthwhile friendships sometimes take effort. While it makes sense to limit the amount of connection you have with truly toxic people, most people will work as friends–at some level–if you invest in forming those bonds.

There are 3 comments

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  1. MiaArena

    My cousin struggles with social anxiety and it’s really hard for me to relate to bc I’m super outgoing. When I was younger, I used to think she was CHOOSING not to participate in things bc she was snobby or something. But as I got older, I realized she WANTED to participate, but it sent her into total meltdown to even consider it. This info is really helpful so thank you.

  2. Sugar76

    Um, I didn’t even know this was a thing. Now I wonder about one of my friends who has a really hard time in crowds.

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