While most of us can’t wait to meet up with friends again and return to life as usual, a year of being cut-off by lockdowns has left those suffering anxiety disorders even more fearful of the future. Here’s some advice to help them through…
After the year from hell we’re all chomping at the bit to get back to experiencing again what was normal life pre-pandemic. But the world opening up is a double-edged sword for some people who have been isolated or cut off for more than 12 months – those who suffer from social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations. It’s a common problem that usually starts during the teenage years. It can be very distressing and have a big impact on your life. For some people it gets better as they get older, but for many it does not go away on its own without treatment.
KNOW THE SYMPTOMS
Not to be confused with shyness, social anxiety is a fear that does not go away and affects everyday activities, self-confidence, relationships and work or school life.
You may have social anxiety if you:
- Worry about everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping.
- Avoid or worry a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company and parties.
- Always worry about doing something you think is embarrassing, such as blushing, sweating or appearing incompetent.
- Find it difficult to do things when others are watching – you may feel like you’re being watched and judged all the time.
- Fear being criticised, avoid eye contact or have low self-esteem.
- Often have symptoms like feeling sick, sweating, trembling or a pounding heartbeat (palpitations).
- Have panic attacks, where you have an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety, usually only for a few minutes.
- Many people with social anxiety also have other mental health issues, such as depression, generalised anxiety disorder or panic disorder.
It’s a common problem and there are treatments that can help. Asking for help can be difficult but a GP will be aware that many people struggle with social anxiety and will try to put you at ease.
You can also refer yourself directly to an NHS psychological therapies service (IAPT) without a referral from a GP.
HOW TO HELP YOURSELF
There are a number of things you can do to take positive action to help yourself overcome anxiety.
Get yourself out there – If you feel in a hole, do something. Accept invitations to go places and do things that make you uncomfortable. At the same time, you need to prepare yourself to properly handle being out there.
Keep a journal – Writing about your thoughts and experiences in a daily journal will highlight your improvements and when you are falling back into negative-thinking patterns.
Improve your health – Exercise not only increases feelings of well-being and reduces anxiety but if done in the company of others offers the chance to build up your social skills. Spend more time outdoors enjoying mother nature.
Set goals – Put your goals down on paper. This makes them real and measurable.
Be kind to yourself – Build on small achievements and you will feel better about yourself. Some days you can even feel proud that you made it out of the house.
Start saying yes… and no – If you are invited to do something social, try to make a habit out of accepting the invitation. Although you might feel anxious at first, over time the more you do, the less fearful you will become. Equally, don’t be a pushover. You don’t have to go along with everything that everyone wants.
Make changes for yourself, not others – Be careful about your reasons for wanting to change. If you just want to impress your friends on Facebook or in real life with your social skills and popularity, the changes you make won’t last.
Stop putting things off – Perhaps you envision some point in the future when you can conquer your fears. The reality is that there is never a better time than now.
Make one little change – Changes don’t have to be big. Make one little change and see if it has ripple effects in your life. It could be as small as watching the news every evening to keep up on current events and have more to say during small talk.
Laugh – When was the last time you watched a funny movie that made you laugh out loud? Who was the last person that made you chuckle? Try to bring more laughter into your life.
Join a support group – Whether you join a brick-and-mortar support group or an online group, you will find the company of others who understand what you are going through comforting.
Ask for help – One of the hardest parts about having social anxiety is that it is usually a very private battle. If you really want to get out of a rut, you need to open up to at least one person. Don’t wait until tomorrow or next week, or the next time you are in crisis. Consider contacting a mental health helpline such as the one offered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness to get you started.