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The emergence of Social Anxiety Disorder from the pandemic experience.

Credit : Pixabay

During Mental Health week, we’ve been encouraging conversations around mental health and wellbeing. One of the big focuses right now is social anxiety. And with all of the talk about it, what’s meant by ‘social anxiety’?

Someone suffering with Social Anxiety Disorder experiences an overwhelming need to avoid social interactions.

These are debilitating phobias that makes someone suffering from the disorder want to, at any cost, avoid most social contact.

Normally, the disorder develops in adolescence, in the transition from teen to adult; The disorder normally results in a phobia of interaction in nearly all social situations; visiting the shops, going to school, college, or university, and even going to work.

However, there are some social phobias that are more specific to a type of interaction, for example: physically being seen, or having to verbally talk or sign to another person.

Someone may be afraid to talk because of a stammer, or lisp. Someone may want to be heard, but not seen, being more physically shy. Some may feel totally able to talk to someone online, in multiplayer gaming, but dreads the prospect of talking to someone who they know.

Not being able to articulate themselves, not being able to find the right words or stumbling over their words can make someone feel vulnerable, unable to be confident or assertive. Not being able to display an emotion or read body language can be enough to stop someone from interacting socially, from fear of reading someone wrong, or accidentally offending them.

It's important to note that, although Social Anxiety Disorder effects most interactions, specific social phobias can be just as hard to cope with. Most of us can relate to a phobia on some level, whether it’s of spiders, birds, small, enclosed spaces; panic sets in and we are wired to get away from the danger. It’s the same for all phobias; persistent, intense, fears.

Who can be affected?

Although some are more likely to develop Social Anxiety Disorder than others, there are many more people who will, at some point, experience some form of a social anxiety or phobia; Maybe a retiree in a care home who feels isolated, or a teenager who doesn’t feel like they match-up to the perceived expectations set by social media.

There are risk factors that can be associated with the development of Social Anxiety Disorder; however, these aren’t limited and there are many situations or traumatic events that could trigger social anxieties or phobias:

  • A past or present experience of abuse, emotional or physical; as an adult, or child,

  • Experiencing a severe mental or physical trauma, such as being the victim of a crime, a bereavement, or military combat,

  • A current diagnosis of a mental health condition, such as Tourette’s, Bipolar, Autism, and Schizophrenia, that could cause feelings of fear that your behavior may be viewed as unacceptable, or embarrassing. Or a disorder that could influence their perception of the world or

  • Separation or divorce effects both adults and children; An overwhelming feeling of loss, or being unwanted, feelings of low self-worth or worries over being ridiculed for just going through it,

  • A physical disability, such as a deformity or permanent injury,

  • Extended periods of isolation, for example, someone that’s injured and taken into hospital for an extended period, months, or years. They might start to feel that the outside world will ridicule them, or that they just can’t face talking to anyone for fear or what they may say to them, thinking that they’re not adequate or that they’ve changed and won’t be accepted. They may feel alone and scared of what people will think of them.

Social anxiety and phobias from lockdown.

With much of the world still in some level of lockdown, so many people are left stricken of their personal interactions, the nurturing friendships and the supporting relationships have been taken away. Not being able to talk to the people we used to, not being able to say ‘hi’ as we walk past, or just have someone round for a coffee, has had a devastating impact on so many people; we thrive on personal interactions with others, and we need those relationships.

Many have been left feeling lonely; maybe it’s someone who lives in with a house-full, but cannot get out to see their friends, or someone in an uncomfortable home relationship. Someone who lives as a couple, by themselves, or in a care-home. Feeling lonely can have massive effects on the mind, the feeling of being unwanted, or disliked. Not part of a group or rejected. Unable to find the confidence to make a phone-call to someone.

Maybe someone’s no longer able to talk to anyone face-to-face; the interactions that they used to have, that went to video-calling, they now join voice only, keeping their camera off.

Maybe someone can’t face joining conferences or meetings. They may think that their opinion is no longer valuable, or they’re afraid that they’re going to embarrass themselves, so they reduce, or stop, their input in group chats or online meetings.

Self-imposed targets and stresses working from home.

For some top tips to look after your mental health while at work, from home or the office, have a look at the NHS Every Mind Matters:

With much of the world working from home, some find themselves self-imposing performance targets. Unlike working in the office, where co-workers can see you’re busy, someone may find themselves working more, just to show that they are, actually, doing the work.

It’s also more common, for some people to skip their breaks, or work late. Not giving yourself a break from work is definitely a major stress factor, not being able to switch off can cause consuming anxiety and stress;I’ve forgotten this, or I could do that.

Even if someone isn’t underperforming, they are working hard and diligently; with these self-imposed targets and pressures, they may feel like they’re failing to prove themselves, failing to meet their targets, the pressure of work is too much. These emotions will pile on the stress, turn up the anxiety they might start thinking that they are being critiqued by everyone, at every level. They may believe that their co-workers don’t think of them as worthwhile, or that they can’t meet the expectations of work and start to avoid the contact with their coworkers to avoid any uncomfortable conversations or interactions.

Re-adjusting to socializing after lockdown.

Now that we’re slowly coming out of lockdown and allowed to see people that we used, some are left with these feelings of anxiety that are stopping them from reconnecting with their previous relationships, or even dreading the prospect of meeting someone new.

Someone may think they’ve changed over lockdown, emotionally or physically. Without that positive social interaction, there’s nothing to support, or deny, their lowered perceived self-worth, and now focusing on the negative, they may conceptualize the change that’s happened and how different they feel, look or act and that internal conflict spirals to the point where they don’t feel confident with personal interactions, through fear of judgement or humiliation.

Signs that someone may be struggling with Social Anxiety Disorder or phobias.

Someone who is affected by social anxiety may actively avoid social interactions, turning down invitations to social events or withdrawing themselves from social situations. Common signs of social anxiety are:

  • Avoiding eye contact,

  • Talking negatively about themselves or over-exaggerating their personal life,

  • Becoming more withdrawn personally,

  • Excusing themselves from meetings or gatherings,

  • Agitated or irritable when approached,

  • Being easily influenced by others,

  • Agreeing more and disagreeing less,

  • Wanting to be seen less,

  • Turning down invitations to social events,

  • withdrawing themselves from social situations,

Bear in mind that not everyone who lives with Social Anxiety displays typical behaviors, if someone has been living with these for a long time, they may become very good at hiding them. And just because they may come across as secure, don’t assume that they are any less vulnerable than anyone else. Remember that anyone can experience anxieties, stress, and phobias. They’re not exclusive and they don’t discriminate.

Mental Health Awareness Week

This week is mental health awareness week, and during this time we ask for kindness and compassion to all other people. Saying that ‘hello’ when you see someone, saying thank you, and your welcome. Showing someone that they’re worthwhile doesn’t mean that they need constant praise, but it does mean that, at some depth, they need to see a display of that acceptance, appreciation, and respect.

Encouraging someone to join in a task, or game. Helping someone out, more than you normally would, or taking the time to hear someone, actually listen to what they have to say. These are all ways of reinforcing appreciation.

Kindness for a moment can make someone’s day!

Showing someone that you appreciate them will boost their own self-worth. The feeling of being a worthwhile part of a group or appreciated for who they are and what they do, is something that nearly all of us want to achieve. It’s clear that we need to ensure that we’re supporting each other, the general courtesies that we used to exchange around the workplace have all but gone during lockdown. Those simple interactions that used to show someone that you’re thankful for their help, or that you appreciate their opinion or input, are now often much harder to convey, but taking the time to do a little gesture can help more than you might think.

If you are dealing with Social Anxiety, or a social Phobia, remember that you aren’t alone. There’s plenty of resources that can help, from self-help guides, tips and courses to 1-2-1 conversations.

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