All about Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety is the fear of people and in particular social situations. These situations can include work scenarios as well as at social gatherings. People with social anxiety often don’t know they have it and can struggle for years before understanding their fearful reactions.

At the end of this article you’ll find some links that can offer some extra support or information.

About labels

For me, getting my head around the idea that the difficult feelings I experienced in certain situations might be social anxiety was actually a great relief. It had got to a stage in my life where I was beginning to avoid socialising as the stress was often overwhelming. Defining my social difficulties gave me the opportunity to really examine my anxiety, where it came from and what I could do about it.

How do you know you have social anxiety?

Does the invitation to a dinner party fill you with dread and fear? Rather than looking forward to meeting new people do you wrack your brain for an excuse not to go? Do meetings at work leave you feeling traumatised? Do you spend your time in meetings worrying about being put on the spot? Do the feeling you experience in these and other situations include; heart pounding, shortness of breath, self-consciousness, blushing, shaking, sweating, panic and feelings of being trapped? Do you also beat yourself up after these kind of events and then experience feelings of guilt, shame and depression? If this sounds like your experience then getting to grips with social anxiety may be good news.

What’s good about it?

Understanding why we struggle is a huge step in the right direction.  A step towards being kind to ourselves and away from beating ourselves up followed by self imposed isolation. Social anxiety can be a very lonely experience. For some people, though, understanding that they just prefer their own company and simply to give themselves permission to enjoy this is all that is needed. Remember, there is no right or wrong way for putting ourselves where we really want to be. However, for the majority who struggle with this type of anxiety they find themselves caught between how they would like to be and how they actually are. This is also good news as it point to how you really could be. The next step is how to get there and this can take a while but is worth the journey and the effort as I am testament.

What’s the cause?

People have social anxiety for a variety of reasons. My personal opinion is that somewhere down the line in our past we have taken on board that we are not ok as we are and this has lead to self-consciousness. This may not mean that we were criticised or bullied, as is often the case, but that we may also have been over protected. In the latter case it is often when individuals leave home that the problems start. In the former it it is generally our school where we experienced trauma as a result of sustained bullying and rejection.

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is a phobia and is one of the most common forms of phobia. When someone experiences a phobia such as claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) they experience panic and stress similar to those of social anxiety. These symptoms can be found in all forms of phobia. When any animal is in danger three responses arise; fight, flight or freeze. Adrenaline is produced and prepares the animal to fight or flight. With freeze the same reaction occurs but the stress is so overwhelming that the body is paralysed. This state is sometimes regarded as catatonic. The same survival responses occur during the experience of phobia but the reality is our live are not in danger yet our bodies and brains seem to believe this to be the case and react accordingly.

What can you do about it?

Psychotherapy can be a great help in talking about your experiences and what may have happened in the past. Body-based psychotherapy works for many as does EMDR which is designed to release trauma from the mind and body. Joining a social anxiety group can also be a great way of supporting yourself. Knowing that I was not alone in my experience helped me. Social anxiety effects many people of all ages and from all backgrounds. The important thing to remember is that anxiety is part of all our lives and experiences and is a vital feeling but it doesn’t have to rule our lives – we can make friends with it and move towards where we really want to be.

Contact me if you’d like to know more about individual therapy or check out the UKCP directory of therapists.

For social anxiety groups in London check out the social anxiety self-help group.



Psychotherapy as Art

Recently, I watched a documentary about the performance artist Marina Abramovic which followed the process of putting together an exhibition of her work at MoMA in New York. At the heart of her exhibition was a new piece of work entitled ‘The Artist is present’. In this installation there were two chairs facing each other and a table in between. In one chair sat Marina whilst visitors queued to sit in the chair opposite. Once they had settled themselves Marina raised her head and established eye contact for the duration of their sitting. The rules were simple, no talking, no physical contact just eye contact. They could sit for as long as they wished and she remained present for the entire three months of the exhibition.

The effect of this pure and still presence attracted huge attention with some visitors queuing day and night to sit opposite her. She later described how she observed the emotional states that many sitters brought, from simple curiosity to anger and sadness to love and pain. For many there was a sense of being seen for the very first time and in this encounter deep emotions were stirred.

What was it about this simple performance that affected so many people?

In our society we have created little room for just being and as a result many of us are constantly on the move in a never ending cycle of action and reaction. Here, in the center of one of the busiest cities in the world an artist sat as the art itself and observed the observers. In that inaction she brought the visitor into the present moment with her.

Later, Marina decided to have the table removed. Now the dynamic of the piece resembled the same composition as in the psychotherapy session between therapist and client. However, in therapy there is the boundary of time where words are exchanged.

Can that pure still presence manifest in the container of a 50 minute therapy session where words and language are ever present?

I believe it can and does ..

The essence of that piece and the intention of pure presence reminded me of what we attempt to do as psychotherapists and often fail through words, interventions, solutions and opinions. We know we shouldn’t but they leak out through our mouths and our body language. The piece reminded me of what I’ve experienced as most trans-formative, both as a client and with my clients as a therapist. That of being fully present with what is happening in the room and witnessing from a place of empathic regard.

I’m always amazed, as I sometimes find myself hurtling across London, at how the troubles of my day dissolved when I’m able to bring myself fully present with my clients. Sometimes that can be challenging when the troubles of the day are great but as I listened to Marina describe the pain she often experienced through sitting for long hours and observing her visitors. In this I was again reminded of how we learn to look out from beyond ourselves into the lives of our clients and sometimes it’s just about being there as fully as we can be.