As many countries begin to emerge from lockdown, there has been much discussion in the media about a return to normality. While some people are excited by the prospect, others are feeling a lot more cautious and concerned.
In fact, as Covid-19 restrictions continue to be lifted, there have been informal reports of an increase in social anxiety. According to an article in Marie Claire magazine, over the past three months, there has been a 3,100 percent increase in online searches in the UK for symptoms of anxiety, signs of social anxiety and medication for anxiety. In their study of social media, they found 33 percent were anxious about lockdown ending.
But there’s a big difference between being nervous about going to a restaurant with a few friends or a crowded public space and full-blown social anxiety. So I’ve put together a short guide to social anxiety – what it is, what the symptoms are, and what else might be going on instead.
What is social anxiety?
According to an article published in the journal BMC Psychology, social anxiety is a psychiatric condition that affects up to 1 in 8 people at some point in their lives. It is linked to reduced quality of life, professional underachievement, and poor psychological wellbeing.
Evidence suggests that social anxiety exists on a spectrum of severity and even if it is not serious enough to warrant a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder (SAD), it may still lead to significant limitations in an individual’s life.
What are the signs and symptoms of social anxiety?
The symptoms can vary in intensity from being nervous about going into social situations or meeting new people to fearing you will be humiliated or judged in everyday situations such as eating or drinking in front of other people or having to speak to shop assistants.
The anxiety might manifest itself physically as blushing, sweating, trembling, a rapid heart rate or feeling nauseous. Someone with social anxiety might also feel their mind going blank, their posture becoming rigid and even hear their voice turn into a whisper.
A person diagnosed with SAD would find eye contact very difficult. In fact, they would find it scary to be with other people, especially people they don’t know. They’d feel self-conscious, embarrassed and awkward, and their fear of being judged would lead to them staying away from places where they’d have to engage with other people.
Sometimes the anxiety manifests itself in performance-based situations such as giving a speech, playing team sports, or playing a musical instrument in public.
According to a publication created by the US National Institute of Mental Health called Social Anxiety: More Than Just Shyness, social anxiety disorder usually starts during youth in people who are extremely shy: “Research suggests that about 7 percent of Americans are affected. Without treatment, social anxiety disorder can last for many years or a lifetime and prevent a person from reaching his or her full potential.”
If you suspect you might be suffering from social anxiety, take the LSAS-SR (the self-report version of the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale, a screening test for SAD).
Am I just a shy person?
As the title of the NIMH publication suggests, social anxiety is more than just shyness. But how can you tell the difference?
There is a test called the Mini-SPIN, developed by Dr Jonathan Davidson of Duke University Medical Center. It is based on three statements:
- Fear of embarrassment causes me to avoid doing things or speaking to people.
- I avoid activities in which I am the centre of attention.
- Being embarrassed or looking stupid are among my worst fears.
As someone who was shy as a child, I can immediately see that I wasn’t socially anxious as I didn’t avoid activities in which I was the centre of attention (I performed for my local ballet school and had the lead role in a school play).
It was only as an adult that I understood more about where my shyness was coming from – I completed the Myers-Briggs personality test and discovered I was an introvert.
Am I just an introvert?
It may come as a surprise to learn than extroverts can have social anxiety too – but there’s often an assumption that it only affects introverts.
As an introvert, I need to recharge my batteries by spending time on my own. I prefer one-to-one interactions or small group gatherings to parties or big events, as I am easily overstimulated by loud noises and other sensory input. I love meeting new people in the right environment but don’t enjoy networking situations or small talk and I actively avoid crowds.
The key difference here is that introversion is a personality trait and social anxiety is a mental health challenge. If you want to know whether or not you’re an introvert, there are many free personality tests available online.
Am I just nervous about mixing with people again after lockdown?
Many countries have been in lockdown for a long time, so it’s understandable that you might be feeling worried about going out into the world again.
According to neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan, what many of us are experiencing is what’s known as “re-entry anxiety”.
In an article in British Vogue, she says: “We experience a rollercoaster of emotions when any changes happen, and this is a change we are expecting and have had time to imagine the pros and cons of, in advance. The brain tends to create negative scenarios as a protective mechanism. If this goes into overdrive it can manifest as symptoms of anxiety.”
Common experiences associated with re-entry anxiety are recurring thoughts about being in crowded spaces, having nothing to say in social situations, anxiety dreams or worries about people judging your appearance.
Re-entry anxiety is likely to be a temporary state experienced until you adjust to the changes and begin to respond as you would have done pre-pandemic – unlike social anxiety, which is more likely to be a long-term condition.
How can Zgmund help with social anxiety?
On the Zgmund App you can open up and chat with like-minded people with similar interests and share your feelings about social anxiety – or any other type of anxiety – in a safe and supportive environment. The advantage of this for anyone with social anxiety is that no one knows who you are and they can’t see you, so it’s less likely that you will feel judged.
Zgmund is currently engaging with mental health organizations that help the public cope with social anxiety and ease its symptoms. If you wish to be the first to try our anonymous support-groups facilitated by empathic AI, sign up to our waitlist.