Our modern world hosts a social realm of staggering complexity. Much of the western world shares basic social norms like wearing clothes, the handshake, and respecting personal space. But the closer you look, the more complicated it gets. Media propagates an image, which spans nations, of how people ought to behave. Then sub-national regions give rise to cultures within culture. Groups or cliques within the sub-national regions have their own behavioral codes which span smaller communities. You can even find unique social pressures in groups consisting of as few as two people.
By observing humanity communicate anonymously on a massive scale through the Internet, we gain many insights which seem to have been bred as a direct result of the anonymity. Simple truths about the human experience, as it is today, in a booming global population, channeled at break-neck speed through a common infrastructure of schooling and work, are shared and discussed no matter how personal. From this white noise of opinions, we hear the ones which are expressed the most. We hear the weary voice of the socially anxious, consisting of about 18%of the adult population in the U.S. (ADAA). The socially anxious are those of us who suffer an aversion to social interaction. They fear being scrutinize or judged, and experience a range of symptoms from the sub-diagnosable stomach butterflies, to the diagnosable and severe, such as sweating, shaking, dry mouth, shortness of breath, diarrhea, and confusion.
So it is really not surprising that, behind the mask of anonymity on the Internet, humanity cries out its frustration with these layers upon layers of rules that one must follow to be socially successful. One such rule is to not announce social anxiety publicly, which could attribute to its wide expression on the Internet. Add the fact that we simply interact less than ever before without the assistance of technology, and you have an explanation for why social anxiety prevails and expands.
Anxiety’s thorny presence can materialize at any time in your life, most often after a big change like moving, switching schools, or getting a new job; but also for less obvious reasons stemming from obscure psychological development. Its origins may be inherited genetically, or learned, although it is usually a combination of both (Mayo Clinic).
Whether learned or genetic, social anxiety hinges on the fear of being watched closely by others and judged. This causes nervousness of varying magnitude, which can lead to awkward behavior and a vicious feedback loop (input:fear, output:awkwardness, input:more fear, etc). Even individuals who are socially adept can suffer, but the fear is not rational.
Social anxiety may manifest physically, as described above, or mentally. Thoughts like “I don’t fit in,” “they don’t like me,” “people are staring at me,” and “they know how nervous I am” are common (APA). These noxious sensations and thoughts drive the individual to change their behavior. They might apologize excessively, stare at their phone, avoid social situations entirely, or only engage with who they consider to be safe, nonjudgmental people (Antony and Swinson, 2008). The totality of these effects on the individual’s social life can range from being negligible to devastating. They range from having to work a little harder at controlling one’s thoughts and emotions but still maintaining healthy relationships, to retreating into isolation.
Luckily, social anxiety is easily detected. As long as the individual does not embrace it and justify an isolated existence, it can also be managed quite effectively, especially compared to other psychological conditions. To yield to anxiety and isolation is to invite serious health problems. Understanding the importance of socialization should provide the impetus for guiding one’s self to becoming comfortable with it.
Many sufferers do not consider their woes to be substantial enough for a visit to the doctor, or prescription medication. You can determine what your needs are based on where you are on the anxiety spectrum. If you refuse to leave your house, or get physically ill at the thought of meeting people publicly, then perhaps your needs require a specialist. If you are capable of socialization, but find it unnerving and difficult, then self-help may be within your grasp. Part two of this piece is intended to assist the latter group regain control of their mind and body in social situations.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text Revision). Washington, DC: Author.
Antony, M. M., & Swinson, R. P. (2008). The shyness and social anxiety workbook: Proven, step-by-step techniques for overcoming your fear (2nd ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.