Social anxiety disorder is a challenging psychiatric condition that affects tens of thousands of Americans. Those who suffer from it find normal social interactions extremely uncomfortable. As a result, they go out of their way to avoid interacting with others, often to the point that it interferes with their daily life. For teens, social anxiety disorder can be especially problematic because it can interfere with their normal transition into adulthood. For adults, this disorder can have a very negative impact on both careers and relationships. In severe cases, it can be very debilitating. If you or someone you love struggles with social anxiety disorder, it doesn’t have to control your life. There are several things you can do that will not only help you cope with the disorder, but also help you learn to thrive in any social situation. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Cognitive behavioral therapy is a very specific type of therapy that’s been shown to be effective for all types of anxiety disorders. It focuses on how your thoughts influence your feelings and your behavior. During therapy, you’ll learn to identify negative thought patterns that are fueling your social anxiety. As you identify them, you’ll learn to change the negative patterns into positive, healthier ones. In therapy, you’ll also work on learning and practicing new behaviors that will help alleviate the anxiety you experience in social situations. In the early stages of therapy, the therapist may simply have you imagine that you’re engaging in activities that are stressful. Once you are able to do that without significant anxiety, you’ll then role play or rehearse various situations with the therapist. Finally, you’ll begin to practice these new behaviors – reinforced by the positive thinking patterns you’ve learned – in real life social interactions. One of the many benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy is that it is a relatively short-term type of treatment. If you stick with it and do the homework assignments your therapist gives you, it can provide outstanding results. Breathing Techniques In addition to working on changing negative thought patterns and practicing new behaviors, your therapist may also show you proper breathing techniques. If you’re like most people who struggle with anxiety, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow whenever you’re in a new or particularly uncomfortable social situation. Your therapist will help you become more self-aware of your breathing. By recognizing when your breathing becomes erratic, you can take the appropriate steps to slow your breathing down. When you breathe slowly and deeply, you’ll experience a calming effect. As you practice doing this regularly, you’ll find that it will help reduce the jittery feeling associated with social anxiety. Medication Antidepressant medications are sometimes used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy to treat anxiety disorders. The most frequently prescribed antidepressants for anxiety are medications known as “SSRIs” (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Other antidepressant medications, including tricyclics and MAO inhibitors, may also be prescribed if indicated. Zoloft and Paxil (sertraline and paroxetine) are two SSRIs that the FDA has approved for treating social anxiety, although other medications in this category may also be effective. SSRIs work by increasing the level of serotonin in your brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is largely responsible for mood. It is often referred to as the “feel good” hormone. While SSRIs don’t always work, many people report that they help them feel less stressed and overwhelmed. If you have severe or acute social anxiety and don’t respond to antidepressants, your doctor may prescribe another type of medication known as a benzodiazepine. Unlike antidepressants, benzodiazepines are very fast-acting. They have a sedating effect on frazzled nerves. Unfortunately, they also have a high potential for abuse and addiction. They should never be taken on a regular basis for more than a few weeks. Medication can make it easier to practice the skills you’ve learned in therapy in real-life situations. As a general rule of thumb, medication should be used only in conjunction with other treatment options, rather than as the sole treatment for social anxiety disorder. This is because medication, unlike therapy, doesn’t treat the underlying cause or help you develop the necessary skills to manage your anxiety. Social Groups If you suffer from social anxiety disorder you may find it beneficial to join social groups. Two good options are clubs (that focus on an interest of yours) or non-profit organizations in which you can do volunteer work. While it may sound daunting, participating in a social group will force you to interact with others without feeling any pressure to develop friendships. After a short period of time, you’ll begin to develop more self-confidence in social situations in general. Your participation in a social group is also a great way to improve communication skills. Support Groups Like others who suffer from the debilitating impact of social anxiety, you’ve probably chastised yourself for being afraid to face social situations. You’ve probably frequently felt that there is something terribly wrong with you because of the fierce anxiety you’ve experienced. The truth is, however, that you’re far from alone. There are many people who struggle with some degree of social anxiety even if it’s not severe enough to interfere with their day-to-day activities. Attending support groups is one of the best ways to discover just how many others experience similar fears and emotions. You’ll find that social anxiety is actually quite common as you share experiences with others who’ve been there. This will help you let go of harsh self-judgments and become more accepting of yourself – all while developing a network of support and encouragement. Tap into Spiritual Energy Engaging in religious activities and spiritual endeavors will often help alleviate some of the stress associated with an anxiety disorder. Reading encouraging pieces of scripture can help reinforce positive thoughts, leading to behaviors that become more positive and self-affirming as well. You may find comfort in prayer because you’re relying on a higher power to help you in stressful, anxiety-provoking situations. Confiding in a pastor or other type of clergy provides the opportunity to discuss your anxiety without worrying about being judged. Since most churches offer a wide variety of social activities, this can be another great outlet for you to interact with others in a non-threatening situation. Improve Your Appearance Many individuals with social anxiety have low self-esteem due to negative feelings and self-consciousness about their appearance. If this is true for you, find ways to improve your physical appearance can boost your willingness to explore new social settings. Whether you’re a man or a woman, consider investing in a new haircut and / or some new clothes to help you look (and feel) more attractive and confident. If you’re a woman, you may also want to try some new makeup techniques, undergo facial waxing, or have a professional manicure to help enhance your physical appearance. While these things may seem trite or silly, sometimes small changes can provide a much-needed confidence boost. Avoid Negative Influences With social anxiety disorder, it is important to surround yourself with positive, energetic people as often as possible. You’ll do yourself a huge favor by avoiding anyone who is negative. This is important because the attitudes of those around you are often contagious – if they’re negative then it’s going to be difficult for you to be positive or confident. Individuals who are upbeat and optimistic will typically be more encouraging and supportive. Their positive outlook will help you feel more positive as well. Social anxiety disorder can be debilitating. If you let it rule your life, it can prevent you from developing friendships and significant relationships, while robbing you of the joy life has to offer. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Each of the things listed above can help you more effectively deal with your social anxiety, so that everyday situations are as stress free and enjoyable as possible.
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