Suffering from a social anxiety disorder can make life really miserable, lonely or worse. Learning how to spot the common signs and symptoms of social phobia is the first step to solving them.
1. Physical Anxiety Symptoms
SA affects a person physically, although it really depends on the person which symptoms are present.
- Chest tightness – the chest can feel very compressed and small
- Short & rapid breathing – this is called hyperventilation
- Blushing – blood rushing to the face when under stress
- Sweating – this is a bi-product of another symptom – hot flushes
- Upset stomach – sufferer’s stomach may ache, or may feel like vomiting
- Fast & forceful heart rate – a pounding heart is a common symptom
- Pulse in ear – blood being pumped at such a rate that you can feel it in the ear
- Shaking or trembling
- Difficulty in speaking and swallowing
- Bad guts – bouts of wind or diarrhoea can happen
- Clammy hands – bodily overheating can make your hands sweat
- Trouble sleeping – often not too serious, but can sometimes become insomnia
- Dry mouth – the throat and mouth often dry up during anxiety
- Tight throat – it can feel like the muscles in your throat are constricting
- Muscle tension – it’s normal during anxiety to feel tense
- Dizziness – feeling lightheaded, or like the room is spinning a little
- Derealisation – feeling as if the situation you’re in isn’t actually real
- Poor concentration – an inability to focus during conversation
- Twitching muscles – involuntary spasms, especially in the face
- Hot flushes or chills – feeling overly hot or cold (usually hot)
- Instant need to urinate
- No appetite – feeling full even when you know you’ve not eaten
How do the physical symptoms occur?
The physical symptoms are part of a sophisticated survival mechanism that is built into all of us. The symptoms are triggered by your subconscious mind, which believes that it is protecting you.
The subconscious sees what it believes to be danger, and it sends signals to your body to react in ways that should give you a better chance of survival.
This wouldn’t be an issue if you were being chased by a bear, but obviously, it’s a problem if you’re in harmless social situations.
Why do these symptoms happen?
Most of the social anxiety disorder bodily effects help in some way when you’re in danger. Their purpose is to get your body into the best condition it can be in, to maximize your chances of survival.
- A racing heart, which you might say is a regular symptom, happens to provide plenty of oxygen to your muscles – so that you can run or fight without tiring quickly.
- The sudden need to urinate comes from your body trying to lighten itself, so that you have less weight to carry – allowing you to run faster.
Social anxiety disorder is where the subconscious mind believes social situations to be threatening, and so it tricks your body into survival mode.
That’s really what this disorder is, and the mind can be restructured so that this no longer happens.
2. Behavioural Symptoms of Social Anxiety
The way anxiety can make you feel will often manipulate your behaviour, possibly bringing on some of these anxiety related symptoms.
- Avoidance of eye-contact – involves a lot of looking down
- Avoidance of social situations – bars, clubs, parties, school
- Passive behaviour – letting people do what they want, rightly or wrongly
- Hesitancy – delaying speaking etc
- Passivity – avoids taking the lead, driving things forward
- Keeping views or opinions private
- Only going to familiar places
- Only communicating with familiar people, like family or old friends
- Agreeing with the majority
- Dressing very ‘plain’ to avoid being noticed
- Dressing immaculately so that people will at least appreciate looks
- Overly helpful or agreeable
- Talking very quietly, or, very loudly
- Stuttering on words, or mumbling words, making it difficult to talk
- Fidgeting, biting nails, tapping fingers
- Almost doesn’t talk, seemingly inadequate social skills
Why These Symptoms?
People suffering social anxiety feel, on a subconscious level, threatened by others. The behavioural symptoms will reflect just how threatened the sufferer feels.
The behavioural symptoms are done unconsciously, as a means of minimizing the chances of the perceived threat turning nasty.
The above symptoms are “safety behaviours”, designed to keep the sufferer safe from harm.
For example, with social anxiety eye contact is avoided to draw minimum attention from others. The less attention attracted, the smaller the ‘threat’ is. As another example, passivity in conversation is supposed to avoid causing any conflict – again to minimize perceived threat.
Almost every single action taken by a socially anxious person when amongst others, will probably be a safety behaviour. When your subconscious is telling you that others are dangerous, this is how it makes sense to behave.
Each time a safety behaviour is used, the subconscious sees you take notice of it, and strengthens it’s view that “other people are a threat”. Because the subconscious is constantly seeing you react with safety behaviours, it believes that the threat is ever more serious. Thus, the effects of social anxiety worsen.
3. Mental Symptoms of SAD
Anxiety affects the way the mind works, possibly allowing these symptoms to manifest.
- Extreme focus on the self – monitoring how you appear to people
- Focusing on what to say next, instead of what is being said to you
- Difficulty remembering what someone else said because of the above
- Finding it hard to think because the mind goes blank
- Limiting beliefs and assumptions. E.g. “I must…or they won’t like me”
- Imagining bad outcomes from social situations
- Picturing the physical symptoms happening
- Imagining what you look like to others. Trying to ‘mind read’
- All or nothing thinking. “Any less than perfection is unacceptable”
- Deep-level negative beliefs about the self and others
For example, focusing on yourself (being introspective) is a habitual process. Your mind has become conditioned to do that in social circumstances.
The more you repeat these bad habits, the stronger they get, and thus the worse the anxiety symptoms get. It’s a nasty, vicious (but harmless) cycle, a bit like picking your nose.
Why do These Mental Symptoms Take Place?
Let’s go through the specific symptoms of social anxiety disorder, to see why each one would happen:
Extreme focus on the self:
Social anxiety disorder is a dysfunctional
reaction of the subconscious mind, telling the body that there’s a
threat. When you feel threatened, your number one priority is your own
safety, so it’s natural to switch your focus onto yourself.
Focusing on what to say next:
This is caused by being so worried at the
consequences of the conversation dying, that you’re trying too hard to
keep it alive.
Finding it hard to think because the mind goes blank:
During bad anxiety there are so many uncomfortable sensations running around, that it’s easy to switch your attention to them. This distracts you from thinking about what’s happening in the environment around you.
Limiting beliefs & Assumptions:
These develop during the course of your whole life’s experiences, and for so many reasons.
In your early years, the beliefs and assumptions that your family have are absorbed by you. This is one possibility.
Black and white thinking is another; whereby
you might think that one or two occurrences of something bad indicate
something permanently bad about you.
Imagining bad outcomes:
Past experiences may have taught you to see
reasons why things will go badly again. It’s a habit that can really
gain momentum, and can be difficult to break.
Picturing physical symptoms happening:
This is caused by a fear of feeling the physical effects of social anxiety, along with the assumption that others will think less of you if you show signs that you are suffering from these types of anxieties.
You picture it because you
believe that you have a lot to lose if it happens.
Imagining what you look like to others:
Attempted mind reading is another technique used when ‘under threat’. You want to know what the threat might do, so that you can be ready for it. It’s a psychological attempt at self defence, only, in this situation, it just causes problems.
4. Emotional Symptoms of Social Phobia
A problem like SA is obviously going to affect the way a person feels. Such feelings can turn out as 1 or more of these anxiety disorder symptoms.
- Fear – it’s scary to be feeling the other types of symptoms
- Nervous – in case of doing something ‘wrong’
- Paranoid – like others are looking at you, much more so than they really are
- The desire to get out of the location, when anxious
- Feeling ashamed – of the anxiety, or the consequences of it
- Frustration and anger; with yourself and/or other people
- Feeling inferior to others, who appear not to suffer anxiety
- Feeling depressed or sad
5. ‘Lifestyle’ Social Phobia Symptoms
Often people who are suffering from the effects of a social anxiety disorder or phobia will make lifestyle choices that further reduce their confidence and self-esteem.
- Rejecting invites from friends
- Friendships weakening from a refusal to go out
- Few, if any, relationships with opposite sex
- A poor attendance record at school
- A job below potential
Empty weekends and evenings
People who suffer intense social phobia symptoms tend to turn down social opportunities. It’s the obvious choice; if you don’t know any better, and something makes you feel really uncomfortable, why would you do it?
The refusal to accept invitations from people will obviously leave the times that people get together, blank for you.
Whilst others are out at the weekend, people who suffer social phobia are usually at home.
I should know. All through my teens I went to school on weekdays, and stayed home the rest of the time. This unfortunately helped the emotional symptoms of social phobia to set in.
Overuse of the internet, games and TV
Due to an oversupply of time available to spend at home, and a lack of things to actually do at home, computers and TV’s get used very regularly by SA sufferers.
So, people who suffer the effects of social phobia must be doing something at home, and often it’s using the net, a games console or just watching TV.
These activities become instrumental to one’s lifestyle when there’s a focus on avoiding anxiety-provoking situations.
When you turn down invitations from people on a regular basis, they’ll be wondering why you’re so reluctant. Eventually it’ll come to light that you’re not interested in hanging around with them; which, ironically, couldn’t be further from the truth.
You want to hang out with friends, but you feel that you can’t because of the anxiety.
Friends don’t know this truth, and so they assume you’ve lost enthusiasm for the friendship.
In time, they lose enthusiasm too. It can be hard to take.
You can, however, re-establish old friendships. People forgive and forget.
Much time spent alone
This is indeed an obvious one, so there’s no need for me to say too much about it. If you’re avoiding anxiety-stimulating situations, and it’s people that tend to stimulate anxiety, then you’ve probably been spending quite a bit of time alone, unfortunately.
A below your potential job
Sufferers of social anxiety tend to stick to ‘safe’ actions, and that includes the world of work. I used to do this. I had a job where I only ever saw people who didn’t really trigger my anxiety. It was a form of avoidance, keeping that job.
So, many sufferers of intense social phobia will take up jobs that mean minimal interaction with people.
If that means poor pay and boring work, then so be it, so long as it involves staying away from anxiety.
No dating or relationships
Many social anxiety sufferers find that their anxiety is worse around people they’re attracted to. Because of the agonizing nature of the anxiety, it seems easier to just avoid attractive people altogether – and that’s what many do.
The truth is that it’s more painful being lonely and not having anyone, than it is feeling the anxiety. In the long run, that is. In the short term it seems less painful to just avoid – that’s why SA sufferers don’t date often/at all.
It’s especially a problem for men, since they’re the ones expected to take the initiative and set up dates etc. Women with social anxiety can at least have the other person set it all up, making it easier for them to date.