Social Anxiety at School and in Public: What It Is and How to Manage It
Everyone can relate to feeling nervous or shy in a social setting once in a while. There are many instances – public speaking, being the new kid at school, or getting to know a new friend, for example – where it’s natural to be nervous. But if your anxiety in social settings is so severe that it keeps you from trying new activities or making friends, then you might have social anxiety.
This topic has become even more prevalent in the days since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit because students went months or longer without seeing their friends and peers. Now, most schools have returned to the physical classroom, but many teens are still having a hard time reorienting to school and social situations. Regardless of whether you think COVID may have impacted your social anxiety, more and more young people are wondering: what really is social anxiety, and how do you deal with it?
As therapists for teens and young adults, we at Liz Morrison Therapy work with many young people who are worried they might have social anxiety and don’t know what to do about it. In this blog, we’ll talk about what social anxiety is, some telltale signs and symptoms, and how you can start to take action against your social anxiety today.
What Is Social Anxiety – And How Do I Know If I Have It?
Social anxiety is more than just feeling shy or a bit anxious in uncomfortable settings. It’s an overwhelming fear of being judged or rejected by others – to the point where avoidance of everyday social interactions is the norm. Of course, no one wants to be judged or made fun of by their peers or anyone else. But for people who have social anxiety, the fear of humiliation can prevent them from having a fulfilling life.
One sign of social anxiety is that you can’t function properly at school. School requires near-constant social activity. There’s hallway banter, group projects, and class discussions. In fact, it’s hard to find a moment alone when you’re at school. If you have social anxiety, you may find it far too difficult to make friends, talk to new people, or speak up in class because you’re afraid of being judged and ridiculed. You may have the unpleasant feeling that you’re always being watched by everyone around you.
Your fear of attending school may even keep you from going sometimes. Maybe you pretend to be sick or try to think of other ways to stay home. In general, school might feel like one big disastrous embarrassment waiting to happen.
Another sign you may have social anxiety is you avoid social settings and situations. Even if you want to make new friends, you may find yourself unable to work up the nerve to go to that party, attend the dance, or talk to your crush.
You may also fear being in the limelight, including public speaking, musical or theatre performances, or sports games. Again, the fear of being watched and judged is overwhelming. Your fear might prevent you from doing these things at all, or you might just feel a tremendous amount of anxiety while performing around others.
Signs and Symptoms of Social Anxiety at School
Signs and symptoms of social anxiety at school and in public can include:
Your mind going blank – you can’t think straight
Difficulty talking and coming up with words
Difficulty making eye contact
Feel sick to your stomach
Anxiety for weeks leading up to a presentation, performance, or speaking event
Trembling or shaking, especially in the hands or legs
Usually, these physical symptoms are quite uncomfortable and can even feel scary. And unfortunately, experiencing any of these symptoms can reinforce the fear you feel about social interactions. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you had to deal with social anxiety – being called on in class, having to make a public presentation, or being required to play dodgeball in P.E., for instance – you may have felt so embarrassed that it made you avoid social interactions even more.
That’s the problem with anxiety disorders – the physical symptoms you feel as a result of your anxiety are so uncomfortable that they can cause your fear and anxiety to increase.
When left untreated, social anxiety can lead to isolation, depression, panic attacks, loneliness, and low self-worth. The more you self-isolate as a result of your fear and anxiety, the more likely you are to develop other mental health problems. Social anxiety is a vicious cycle that can prevent you from finding your community and reaching out to people who love you. Luckily, help and treatment are available.
How to Deal With Social Anxiety – 3 Ways
1. Cultivate mindfulness
Being aware of how social anxiety affects you is a key step in figuring out how to manage it. Try journaling about how you feel in social settings, and the different ways your anxiety impacts you. Ask yourself what you’re really afraid of in these situations. What do you think might happen? And how realistic is that? Be aware when negative thoughts and beliefs come up, and then challenge these thoughts and beliefs.
2. Practice healthy coping skills
There are many healthy coping skills you can use to calm down your body and brain and manage your anxiety. Here are a few to try:
Deep, slow breaths.
Focus on your surroundings. Note the temperature of the air, the color of something nearby, or a sound you can hear.
Journal about your experiences or fears.
Talk to someone you trust.
3. Start small
Think of one small action you could do that might feel scary but doable. Maybe it’s making eye contact with the next person you see, even if just for a moment. Maybe it’s saying hi to someone you recognize in the hallway, or asking a question in class.
Whatever it is, rehearse the scenario ahead of time. Try imagining the scene playing out in your head: close your eyes and picture yourself walking down the hall or in class. How do you want to feel at that moment? Confident? Calm? Relaxed? Imagine this feeling. Then, picture the other person you will be interacting with, and what you will say to them. You can even practice your interaction aloud or in front of the mirror. Or instead of picturing it in your head, you can write everything down in a journal, or even draw or paint it out.
Play out the scene enough times that you feel good about it, and then try it for real the next chance you get. Having even one successful small interaction can help you start to realize that you’re capable of having many more. It can help you gain confidence and start to build up your socializing muscles.
Therapy Can Help You Figure Out How to Deal With Social Anxiety
Your social anxiety doesn’t have to be a lifelong sentence. Many of the teens who come to us for help with social anxiety are able to take control of their social lives again and feel much happier. If you want support figuring out how to deal with social anxiety, we’re here to help.
We can help you build awareness, mindfulness, and fear-facing skills to tackle social anxiety. Together, we’ll work to challenge your scary thoughts so you feel calmer, in control, and more confident in social situations.
Feel free to get in touch with us for a free 15-minute phone consultation. We can answer any questions you have, see whether we’re a good fit, and start working toward a better future today.