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What Are Strategies for Dealing with Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, is characterized by an intense fear of and/or discomfort with what are considered by most people to be normal, everyday social situations. People with social anxiety are excessively self-conscious in public or, in some cases, with any group outside those few people closest to them because they feel scrutinized and judged by others, which they fear will result in embarrassment and humiliation.

Social anxiety symptoms include trembling and shaking of the body and/or voice, difficulty speaking, difficulty making eye contact, nausea, diarrhea, profuse sweating, clammy hands, rapid heartrate and blushing. For some people, their social phobia is triggered only by a particular type of situation, such as meeting a new person or eating a meal in public, whereas others are likely to experience symptoms in any kind of social situation.

Because social anxiety can be difficult to understand for those who don’t have it, and because it usually causes the sufferer to try to avoid any circumstances that are likely to induce their symptoms, it can be very isolating. Social anxiety disorder is often accompanied by — or, if left untreated, can lead to — other mental health problems such as depression or substance addiction.

Treatment for Social Anxiety Disorder

If social anxiety is interfering with your ability to function in and enjoy your life, the best way to deal with it is to seek professional treatment. Social anxiety treatment is similar to the treatment of other anxiety disorders and of many mental health conditions, in general, in that it usually involves a combination of medication and psychotherapy.

Did You Know?

Social anxiety affects approximately 15 million Americans, and about the same number of women and men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, such as Prozac, Paxil or Zoloft, are often the first line of offense for continual social anxiety, although it can take time before you feel their full beneficial effects. Your doctor or therapist may also recommend other antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, depending on your symptoms, experience with any side effects and concurrent conditions.

Beta blockers have also effectively treated social anxiety symptoms in some people. What they block is the body’s reaction to the adrenaline spike that people with social phobia experience in stressor situations, reducing or eliminating symptoms like trembling and a racing pulse. Unlike antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, beta blockers are meant for use on specific occasions, such as the day you have to give a presentation, and not for ongoing or long-term use to manage your social anxiety.

Talking with a professional therapist can be another important element in the treatment of social phobia. Your therapist can help you to examine the kinds of social situations that are difficult for you and to build coping skills that will allow you to better manage your reactions in those situations.

Some strategies that your therapist might suggest include:

  • Mentally and physically prepare for upcoming trigger situations. If you know a potentially anxiety-inducing event is coming up, take steps to minimize your stress and maximize your comfort. Engage in positive self-talk right before the big office meeting. Practice deep breathing or other relaxation exercises before entering the department store. Bring a close friend who understands your disorder to the house party. These kinds of tactics can go a long way toward making you feel more mentally and emotionally able to socially interact.
  • Voluntarily engage in exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a treatment for phobias that involves the gradual development of coping skills by intentionally putting yourself in increasingly closer quarters with your fear. Start small and see if you can challenge yourself over time: make plans to go out for lunch with a friend, stop on the sidewalk and give directions to a lost tourist, go to a book reading and ask a question.
  • Take care of yourself. Inadequate diet and insufficient sleep are known to exacerbate anxiety.
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