Summer has started and with the holidays and festive season just around the corner, your social calendar is probably looking very busy.
There are work Christmas parties, end-of-year events with various social groups, family get-togethers and long-planned catch-ups, holidays, Christmas Day (for those who celebrate it), New Year’s Eve celebrations, and much more.
It is normal to feel nervous before a social event. It could be a birthday or wedding where you don’t know anyone, a work function or networking breakfast with clients where you’re expected to be outgoing and confident, or a family gathering with the in-laws where you feel like an outsider.
Social events like these can place you out of your comfort zone. In fact, you certainly wouldn’t be the only person to have worrying thoughts, such as:
- “I don’t know anyone there.”
- “No one will talk to me.”
- “I won’t know what to say.”
- “I have nothing in common with these people.”
- “I’ll make an idiot of myself.”
- “I have nothing to contribute.”
Those anxious feelings usually go away. There may be some awkwardness or uncomfortable small talk. However, the situation is usually still manageable. Even if the event you’re at is one you would have preferred to avoid, simply being there is usually not enough to bring about intense feelings of mental distress.
For people who experience social anxiety, though, the stress and anxiety of social events can feel quite severe. With so many social occasions at this time of year, the worry can feel overwhelming, so much so that it could start to affect how you enjoy daily life.
When is social anxiety a problem?
If you are constantly worried or stressed about social events, you may be experiencing social anxiety.
What is social anxiety disorder? The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (called the DSM-5, it’s a manual used by health professionals) provides the following definitions on social anxiety. It essentially says that:
- Social anxiety is a persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others.
- The person fears that they will act in a way that will be embarrassing and humiliating.
It means that people with social anxiety experience more than just passing worries because of social engagements — it is more than just shyness.
This is one reason why social anxiety is also known as social phobia. Not only might you feel nervous and stressed, you may also feel a strong need to avoid social situations altogether. You may even feel this urge even though you know that the fear is unreasonable.
A person with social anxiety disorder will usually experience the anxiety and avoidance behaviour for six months or longer.
To compound the concern and worry, it’s possible for these negative thoughts to affect everyday life. It can start to interfere with your work, school, relationships and confidence. You might develop trouble relating to people, you might start to second-guess people’s intentions, or you may begin to feel uncertain about making decisions.
There’s good news though. Social anxiety is a condition that can be treated and managed.
What causes social anxiety?
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders to be diagnosed in northern, western and central Melbourne. As mentioned in this article (What is anxiety?), it is the second most common mental health diagnosis after depression.
Like other anxiety disorders, there may be a number of causes behind why people experience anxiety. These could include a combination of factors, such as:
- Your genetic make-up.
- The family and social environment you grew up in.
- Your thinking style.
- Your physical health.
- Any stressful events.
An estimated 10% of Australians might develop social anxiety during their lifetime, with 4.7% experiencing it in a 12-month period.
How is social anxiety managed and treated?
There are a number of ways in which you can improve your wellbeing if you think you’re experiencing some form of social anxiety disorder.
1) See a professional first
If you feel that anxiety and worry is affecting everyday life, then consider arranging to see a mental health professional or your GP. They can help you determine the nature of your underlying stress and worry, what the likely cause is, whether there are any contributing lifestyle factors, and so on.
2) Try some kind of therapy
A mental health professional might make a number of recommendations. Therapy options could be some of them.
For social anxiety disorders, the Australian Psychological Society recommends what is called cognitive behaviour therapy. It’s a kind of treatment that is known as a talk therapy. It is widely thought to be the most effective treatment for social anxiety disorders.
Cognitive behaviour therapy works by helping you recognise, understand and change those negative and unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that are affecting everyday life. By addressing these concerns and thoughts, cognitive behaviour therapy helps you change those things that might be contributing to your anxiety.
3) Work on stress management techniques
It may sound obvious, but one way to be less stressed and worried is to feel less stress and worry.
Pretty straightforward, right? A stress management technique is a great way to do just that. It can improve your outlook and thereby reduce how stressed and anxious you’re feeling.
Stress management can take many forms. Relaxation, in the most general sense, is a great start to reducing stress. If you know that certain situations make you feel worried or stressed, make a point of resting. Make some downtime and read a book, stream a movie, play on your phone or just lie in bed or on the couch. If you’ve got the time, do things that you know you find relaxing (going for a walk, fishing, painting, doing a hobby you love, etc.).
Meditation and mindfulness techniques are another great way to reduce anxiety. While some people may not be convinced, don’t knock it until you try it. Mindfulness involves relaxing your body and mind by focussing on the present and ‘feeling’ (being aware of) what’s going on around you. It’s a fantastic calming technique and can help you deal with anxiety. It can also help with your ability to focus, mental clarity, decision making, confidence and attention span.
4) Lifestyle changes
There may be things in your lifestyle that are contributing to your anxious mindset. Changing some of these could help reduce the amount of anxiety that you feel.
Stimulants like caffeine and alcohol can affect your mood. Many people consume them as part of their way of coping with anxiety (alcohol is very commonly used to self-medicate for depression and anxiety — it may temporarily numb the feeling, but it won’t fix the cause). Cutting down on these could help reduce your level of anxiety.
A healthy and balanced diet has also been linked to better mental health. As the Victorian Government’s BetterHealth Channel puts it:
“When motivation and energy are lacking, you may find foods such as takeaways, chips, soft drink and lollies appealing. Unfortunately, a diet focused on these types of foods is more likely to exacerbate symptoms of depression and anxiety.”
5) Try to get a good night’s sleep
How well you sleep can have a huge effect on your wellbeing. Quite simply, broken or lack of sleep can have all sorts of ill effects on your mental health — and even your physical health.
A ‘vicious circle’ that can affect people experiencing intense and anxious feelings is the way that the actual negative thoughts themselves may be affecting your sleep. This is because those anxious thoughts are likely to be noticeable while you lie in bed, when there are no distractions.
If you are in this situation, it can feel like it’s beyond your control. It is a good idea to talk to a professional, who can provide advice on how to overcome what can become a negative thinking loop.
Even so, there are things you can control that can help improve your sleep. Resist the temptation to stay up late, stick to a set bed time, or even better, go to bed earlier and then read for a while. While you’re at it, avoid coffee and caffeinated soft drinks after midday (as well as alcohol) and try to minimise the time spent engrossed in portable electronic devices toward the end of the evening.
6) Try to do more physical activity
The physical and mental health benefits of exercise are well known. Physical activity can improve your mood, help you sleep, is an obvious benefit for your physical health, and has a host of other benefits.
Physical activity doesn’t have to involve hitting the gym every night. There are many forms of moderate activity like regular walking that can help. Strength training, cardio, swimming and sports are of course really good for you. However, it’s always worth reminding yourself that any form of physical activity is good for you — and is always better than no physical activity at all.
7) Have a chat with a phone counsellor (it’s free)
If you’re in northern, western or central Melbourne, you can get free online and phone counselling by calling CAREinMIND on 1300 096 269. Counsellors are paid professionals who are trained to help identify the causes of your anxiety and how to deal with it. The CAREinMIND helpline operates 24/7. As mentioned, it’s free to people in northern, western and central Melbourne.
Concerned? Talk to a professional counsellor on 1300 096 269. It’s free to people in north, western and central Melbourne and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Want to know where else you can get help? Find out how to access additional community support.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.
The CAREinMIND blog is delivered by On the Line. The views in each post do not necessarily reflect those of North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network.