The holidays are often portrayed as merry and filled with laughter, cheer, and love. For many of us, however, the reality is quite different. Seasonal pressure to spend time with others – whether at mandatory work parties, hometown holiday friend reunions, or during extended family gatherings and celebrations – can bring about feelings of intense worry and fear, particularly for those who struggle with social anxiety.
The worries and fears that characterize general anxiety play a large role in many mental health conditions, but social anxiety is a particularly persistent form which occurs in and around social situations. Individuals who struggle with social anxiety often feel painfully self-conscious and hyper-aware around others, which makes it difficult for them to communicate and connect with people.
As we move further into the holiday season, it’s important to revisit the silent struggle of people with social anxiety who might be suffering extra during this highly sociable time of year.
Shyness vs. Social Anxiety: Unpacking the Myths
Many of us have experienced shyness; it happens when we are nervous, uncertain, or unwilling to meet or talk with new people. Research has long understood that it’s a common part of childhood, as many young children display a natural and healthy caution towards unfamiliar people. Evidence has also shown that this feeling of being shy is rooted in both biological and interpersonal development and can reflect a relatively normal instinct toward social withdrawal that many of us continue to experience well into adulthood. Indeed, researchers have even suggested that some degree of shyness in adults is a highly useful psychological response to some of the complexities presented by contemporary social life.
Social anxiety, by contrast, is characterized by a prolonged and intense fear of unfamiliar people and social settings. People who are experiencing social anxiety feel so afraid in situations where other people may observe or engage with them that they begin to avoid social life entirely. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, individuals who experience this type of intense fear of the unfamiliar every day for over six months may be struggling with what is known as social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder affects one in three people and is particularly common among women and younger adults. Far from being a case of shyness, social anxiety disorder is an extremely psychologically burdensome condition, as it often causes those who are struggling with it to go to extremes to avoid contact with other people. This can mean missing work, attending school, or accomplishing everyday errands outside of the house.
Symptoms of Social Anxiety
The following symptoms can be an indicator of social anxiety:
- Worry about everyday activities such as starting conversations or speaking on the phone.
- Excessive worry about past or future social activities such as group conversations or parties.
- Excessive worry about embarrassing behaviors like blushing, sweating, or fumbling words; avoiding eye contact.
- Heart palpitations, nausea, and physical trembling.
- Feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, or low self-worth.
- In extreme cases, social anxiety disorder can also cause panic attacks.
Not all of these symptoms will present themselves all the time, as those struggling with social anxiety will typically find some periods in their lives more or less difficult than others.
Treatment: Coping and Getting Help
Social anxiety is a common problem, and there are many good resources available to those who need help. It is recommended that anyone whose day-to-day life is being affected by feelings of social anxiety see a medical professional. Psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be used to treat social anxiety disorder, both of which focus on progressively using therapeutic tools to reduce feelings of stress around social situations over time. There are also a number of medications that are all commonly prescribed and can be used to alleviate feelings of fear and anxiety, including antidepressants, beta-blockers, and anti-anxiety medications.
Additionally, there are many ways to support yourself or to support others who are struggling with social anxiety. Learning about the condition to better understand it can benefit both those struggling and those who wish to support their loved ones, as can being able to speak openly about the challenges that present themselves as a result. Creating safe spaces in which individuals feel comfortable withdrawing, without fear of judgment, is critical to opening up the lines of communication required for someone struggling with social anxiety disorder to seek help.
As the holiday season begins, being mindful of the burdens that others might be struggling with – whether it be a simple bout of shyness or a deeper struggle with social anxiety disorder – can make work parties, family gatherings, and the general social atmosphere of the festive season a great deal easier for all.
- Rubin, K.H., and Coplan, R.J. (2010) The Development of Shyness and Social Withdrawal. Guilford Press.
- La Vina, M. (2014). Shy times: A social analysis of shyness and social anxiety in America, 1977-2013. Fordham University, New York. https://www.proquest.com/dissertations-theses/shy-times-social-analysis-shyness-anxiety-america/docview/1561542207/se-2
- National Institute of Mental Health. Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness. NIMH » Social Anxiety Disorder: More Than Just Shyness (nih.gov)
- Jefferies, P. and Ungar, M. (2020) Social anxiety in young people: A prevalence study in seven countries. PLoS ONE 15(9): e0239133.