October Scaries: Social Anxiety and Social Phobia

This October, we're focusing on common fears! Today's post: fear of socializing, being judged by others, and interacting with peers at school.

Social anxiety! Almost everyone has it.

I'm sure the majority of us, at one point or another, has experienced anxiety about socializing with somebody. That little bit of trepidation before you walk into your first day of work, that hiccup of anxiety as you enter a party, or that discomfort when the person sitting next to you on a plane just keeps asking you questions.

But, those small social anxieties are very different from social phobia.

Rather than experiencing a small amount of anxiety that we can easily push through, having a social phobia means that anxiety is debilitating. You're too anxious about that party, so you never go in in the first place. Rather than going to work on your first day, you call in sick or make up an excuse. 

As a child and adolescent anxiety specialist, I see a big range in social anxiety and social phobia.

While some kids and teens are anxious about how their performance is perceived by others, others are worried about any kind of social judgment. They have difficulty sitting in the front of class because they feel everyone's eyes on their back. Or, they throw a huge tantrum at their first dance class and their parent has to try and physically drag them in. 

So how do we deal with social anxiety and social phobia?

For social anxieties, we're already starting off on a good foot. We know that anxiety, while unpleasant, is manageable. We can take slow deep breaths, use coping skills, and give ourselves praise after we follow through.

20 seconds of courage.

One of my clients recently was telling me how they handled their social anxiety. They had recently watched "We Bought a Zoo," where the main character said:

"You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it."

With mild social anxiety, we can put up with anything for 20 seconds - and we're able to take a step back to recognize the reward of putting in that small amount of discomforting effort.

Social phobia feels different.

Those proposed 20 seconds of courage feel like a lifetime. So before you or your child confront the social phobia, it's better to build up to it. Find step one on your gradual exposure plan, and build in lots and lots of regular relaxation practice so that you're sure you know how to handle that at times overwhelming panic. 

Small steps have a big impact. So start small. Maybe even with just 5 seconds of courage!

Does socializing make you feel all worked up? Does your child throw a huge tantrum anytime they have to meet new people? Social anxiety and social phobia are very treatable! And it's easiest to move past the social anxiety when you're working in conjunction with a therapist, counselor, or psychologist.

Kelsey Torgerson at Compassionate Counseling St. Louis specializes in child and adolescent anxiety and panic disorders. She works with kids and teens age 4 through college. You can reach her at 314-339-7640 or kelsey@compassionatecounselingstl.com if you'd like to hear more.