Anxious in Social Situations

Does the thought of giving a class presentation keep your child awake at night? How about the idea of introducing him or herself to strangers? Does your child obsessively worry about what others might say, and whether he or she will be liked? Or is he or she afraid to make social arrangements? If the answer to any of the above is yes, consider the possibility that your child has some level of social anxiety.

What is Social Anxiety?
As the term implies, social anxiety is the experience of discomfort, worry or fear when in the real or imagined presence of other people. Situations where one has to introduce and present one’s self, initiate and maintain conversation, or put oneself up for scrutiny and critique, trigger unease and concern in the person with social anxiety. Anxiety reactions can range from mild to severe – from just feeling nervous to deciding to avoid all social situations altogether.

Is Social Anxiety Normal?
Moderate social anxiety is a normal and common human condition. You yourself have probably worried at some point in your life about what others would think of you, or how strangers, friends and loved ones would react to you. In fact, social anxiety might be construed as a sign of a child’s growing appreciation of another person’s point of view and the natural stresses of relating with other people. After all, judgment is real and the consequences of rejection are also real. A bit of social anxiety can be considered healthy in that it is a realistic appreciation of the possible risks and costs of social interaction. It might even keep us in line, enhancing self-control and self-regulation (so as not to make fools of ourselves!) The trick is to manage moderate social anxiety so that it doesn’t get in our way or in the way of our children.

There are some self-help strategies that can help adults and children reduce normal levels of social anxiety. Practicing social skills can help. Parents can bring home some library books for their children on social skills and good manners. These can provide concrete strategies that will build confidence. Enrolling in drama class may increase social confidence as a child learns how to “act” social. Taking social skills classes from a professional social skills teacher can also be helpful.

There are also strategies geared to managing anxiety symptoms. For instance, before meeting new people, giving a presentation or attending a party, a person of any age can take “Rescue Remedy” (a Bach Flower Remedy available at health food stores and online). Rescue Remedy helps turn off “butterflies,” rapid heart-beat, sweaty palms and other symptoms caused by the release of adrenaline (the body’s panic and anxiety chemical). A few drops in a glass of water, sipped slowly, can restore a sense of calm. Similarly, preparing for the event by using EFT (emotional freedom technique – a self-help tool that turns off the adrenaline response) can be really helpful. There are lots of on-line resources for learning EFT. If a child or adult suffers from chronic social anxiety, he or she can use Bach Flower Remedies to heal the self-conscious tendency. Either visit a Bach Flower practitioner for a specially blended mixture of the remedies, look online for descriptions of each remedy, or simply experiment with a mixture of Rock Rose, Mimulus, Larch and Cerato (remedies that address common underlying reasons for the anxious feelings). If you choose to mix your own remedies, simply add 2 drops of each remedy to a one-ounce Bach Mixing Bottle (available where Bach Flower Remedies are sold) that has been filled with water. Add one teaspoon of brandy to preserve the mixture in the bottle. Take four drops four times a day until the anxiety is no longer an issue. If it returns, repeat the treatment. Repeat as often as necessary until the anxiety no longer returns.

Consider Social Anxiety Disorder
While feelings of social nervousness and self-consciousness can fall within the normal range, there are also social fears that are much more intense and problematic. When social anxiety causes severe distress or interferes with functioning at work, school or socially, then it may be a manifestation of Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD)  – a serious mental health disorder. The anxiety experienced by a person with SAD can be so extreme that the person has difficulty  working outside his own home environment or going to school and he or she may be unable to establish friendships or intimate partnerships.

Social Anxiety Disorder requires assessment and treatment by a mental health professional. A psychiatrist can prescribe anti-anxiety medication that may provide relief. Psychologists may set up cognitive-behavioral interventions or other interventions aimed at reducing and managing anxiety. A child with social anxiety should be seen by a child psychologist or pediatric psychiatrist. Parents who see that their child is overwhelmed by social anxiety can have the child’s pediatrician or doctor make a referral to a mental health professional for assessment.

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