Social Anxiety Support: Support Groups, Understanding, and Intervention
Updated July 17, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Social anxiety is not a new phenomenon. Once regarded as an uncommon happenstance, social anxiety used to function almost like a stereotype or a punchline, designed to demonstrate the presence of “that one kid” in a storyline, or to deliver a heartfelt tale, in which a social butterfly takes a shy or awkward kid under their wing. Far from these simplistic and biased caricatures of the behavior associated with Social Anxiety Disorder are the actual confines of the disorder, which is a legitimate mental health concern, with a prescribed set of symptoms and treatments.
What Is Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder is also identified as “social phobia,” and rightly so: individuals with social anxiety experience fear of social situations, and may avoid them as a result. The signs of social anxiety include:
- Worrying about embarrassing, humiliating, or otherwise making a fool of yourself in social situations. Although it may be typical to experience butterflies or sweating palms before a large event, such as a public speaking engagement, feeling this way each time you walk into an unknown situation is not standard, and typically indicates the need for further mental health evaluation.
- Avoidant behavior. People with Social Anxiety Disorder might engage in avoidant behavior, a classic symptom of declining mental health, and minimize the number of times they are required to engage in social situations. Work promotions and opportunities may be passed over, dates may be turned down, and parties may be avoided, all in the name of avoiding social situations.
- Fear of meeting new people. As the phrase “social phobia” would suggest, people with social anxiety may have a large and irrational fear of meeting new people in all situations. Consistent fear of meeting new people typically indicates the need for a mental health check-in.
- Fear of authority. People with social anxiety might also experience a fear of authority, as interacting with authority figures offers the possibility of being judged and focused on, both of which trigger a mental health response.
- Escalating anxiety preceding a crowded event. Social phobia may make it difficult to enjoy the buildup to an event, even if it is an event that has been earmarked and looked forward to. Concerts, for instance, may be both a source of excitement and a source of dread, as the beloved music being played is accompanied by large crowds and potential avenues toward embarrassment. Waning mental health is often accompanied by a diminished ability to feel excited and hopeful, and social anxiety is no different.
- Physical indications of struggling mental health in social situations. The physical symptoms of social anxiety are the same as the physical symptoms of other mental health and anxiety disorders: excess sweating, trembling, blushing, dry mouth, and pain in the chest or extremities.
- Preoccupation with events after they have occurred. People with social anxiety and other mental health concerns may repeatedly relive and go over events after they have occurred.
People living with these symptoms might not question or feel concerned about their mental health at all; having experienced the signs and symptoms mentioned above, many people with social anxiety assume that they have done something wrong, or that they are perfectly normal and rational for feeling the above symptoms so intensely. This is one of the most frustrating parts of anxiety and mental health, as it makes seeking help difficult. Since all of the symptoms seem perfectly rational and reasonable, people struggling with social anxiety may fail to seek help for their mental health.
What Social Anxiety Disorder Is Not
Having Social Anxiety Disorder is not the same thing as being shy. One is a mental health condition, often requiring at least one treatment modality, if not multiple treatment modalities, while the other is a personality trait, most often accompanied by a distinct lack of social confidence. One is a treatable mental health condition, while the other is usually a symptom of something else. This distinction is an important one to make, as there may be some stigma involved in having Social Anxiety Disorder; people often mistake shy individuals as individuals who have Social Anxiety Disorder, and vice versa, creating a narrow picture of what someone with social anxiety actually looks like. Having such a narrow view of mental health and mental illness can potentially limit the availability of treatment options, and can encourage people with social anxiety to doubt or downplay their own symptoms and experiences.
Social Anxiety Intervention
Interventions for social anxiety are similar to the interventions used for most mental health disorders: psychotherapy, potential pharmaceutical intervention, and lifestyle changes. Psychotherapy techniques may differ from therapist to therapist and will depend on the client’s mental health, but many mental health practitioners will focus on Cognitive Behavior Therapy, a basic psychotherapy modality, while others might introduce trauma therapy for underlying issues, or exposure therapy, designed to improve clients’ response to the triggers that arise while in social situations. Each of these modalities should be completed by a licensed, trained mental health professional, such as those working through BetterHelp, rather than being attempted by an individual on their own.
Because therapy modalities involve potentially alarming or uncomfortable situations and sensations, it can actually have a negative effect on the person with the condition to try to apply professional mental health techniques without guidance or supervision, and negatively (and inaccurately) portray professional mental health assistance.
Some antidepressants function as anti-anxiety medications and may help improve mental health for a time for individuals with social anxiety. These treatments may not be the first line of defense, but they can be helpful in cases where anxiety has reached a fever pitch and has significantly and negatively impacted an individual’s life, livelihood, or mental health. These medications, too, should only be used while under the care of a licensed practitioner, as they can have serious side effects, and getting the exact dose and even timing correct can take time.
Lifestyle changes that could aid in social anxiety are those for general mental health: more (or better) sleep, healthy eating, and exercise, all of which can boost self-esteem, improve overall health, and improve mood. None of these is intended to take the place of psychotherapy or medication but is instead intended to function as a complementary change to bring about long-lasting mental health recovery and improvement. Other lifestyle interventions can include changing positions at work to better suit anxiety, creating distance in unhealthy relationships, eliminating caffeine and other stimulants, and developing routines to support mental health and general wellness. All of these can be wonderful aides for mental health, alongside psychotherapy treatment.
Social Anxiety Support
One of the differences in social anxiety intervention and standard mental health interventions may lie in the propensity toward recommending support groups as an important part of therapy. Although many therapists encourage mood and anxiety disorder clients to seek out support groups to increase feelings of hope and solidarity, it may be an important part of growth with social anxiety, to realize that you are not alone in the fear and discomfort you feel. It may even help develop friendships if those friendships are developed and maintained with others whose social predilections and mental health concerns mirror your own.
Social anxiety support can come in many forms. Having supportive friends or family members can be an important part of moving forward and healing mental health because they can provide a basis with which to move forward; feeling safe at home, or while in the presence of a handful of people can ease some of the isolation often felt with social anxiety and other mental health disorders. If friends or family are willing to help, it may be possible to slowly begin practicing entering into new social situations by inviting a trusted friend and someone you are less comfortable or familiar with over at the same time. Having supportive loved ones can help ease the transition from avoidant to assertive behavior.
Social anxiety support can also come in the form of professional mental health help; some online venues will allow clients to send a quick text to therapists in a moment of need, and many clients find solace in a consistent weekly meeting with a mental health professional. Group therapy, too, can offer a form of support for social anxiety, because it allows individuals with social anxiety to demonstrate their ability to interact in a healthy, productive way with others, while under the supervision of a mental health professional.
Living with Social Anxiety Disorder
Although Social Anxiety Disorder can be difficult to live with, it is certainly not impossible; as is the case for most mood and anxiety disorders, Social Anxiety Disorder is a treatable condition, though it may require several modalities or types of intervention to fully treat or work through. One significant source of help with Social Anxiety Disorder comes from support groups; because Social Anxiety Disorder can feel extremely isolating to people struggling with social anxiety, knowing that they are not alone in and of itself can prove beneficial and important in treatment. Support groups can also be helpful by providing individuals seeking mental health support with truthful feedback from people who know how they are struggling. Support groups vary in their scope and format; some are online groups, functioning as little more than chat rooms or message boards, while others are in-person groups, meeting once per week, once per month, or as needed. The purpose of these groups is not to supersede professional treatment, but to reveal the presence of companionship, support, and solidarity for those struggling with social anxiety.
Living with Social Anxiety Disorder does not necessarily mean avoiding all contact with others, foregoing friendships, or being consigned to live as a hermit for the remainder of your life; instead, it means that taking precautions, practicing management techniques, and engaging in therapeutic interventions may all be necessary to comfortably and consistently engage in social interactions.