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Social anxiety: What it is and how to live with it

Leanne Hall

Discover what causes social anxiety and what to do about it

A senior woman stares out the window as others chat in a group behind her
A senior woman stares out the window as others chat in a group behind her

Being in new situations with people you don’t know is enough to make anyone feel a little nervous. But when these feelings become so strong that they stop you enjoying life, you may be experiencing social anxiety.

“Being nervous about being around people you don’t know – or even around certain people you do know – is completely normal,” shares psychologist Leanne Hall. “However, if this gets to the stage where you start avoiding situations because you feel anxious, then it’s a problem. Or if the only way you can be around people is to consume substances like alcohol, then chances are you are socially anxious.”

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is far more intense – and debilitating – than simple nerves.

“It is a fear of being judged or criticised in social situations and leads to a reluctance or complete avoidance of social interactions,” explains Leanne. “People who experience social anxiety find it extremely difficult to have conversations and interact with groups of people, preferring one-on-one interactions only.”

Around 3% of Australians will experience social anxiety (also called social phobia) in any one year, with up to 13% developing the disorder during their lifetime. The symptoms are similar to any anxiety disorder: a faster heartbeat, trembling, sweating, an upset stomach, breathlessness, dizziness or light-headedness, the feeling that your mind has gone blank and muscle tension.

A crying man being comforted by others

What causes social anxiety?

The causes of social anxiety aren’t known for certain, but experts think it may run in families. Along with a possible genetic predisposition, Beyond Blue suggests people may develop social phobia after a traumatic event, such as being publicly humiliated or bullied at school.

Social phobia often starts as childhood shyness, developing between the ages of around 11 to 15. It can be triggered by:

  • Crowds and parties

  • Public speaking

  • Striking up (or simply being involved in) conversations

  • Speaking to large groups of people or those in a position of seniority or authority

  • Voicing opinions

  • Meeting new people

  • Dating

  • Using public toilets

  • Going shopping

  • Being watched while eating, signing papers or making a phone call.

In fact, even the anticipation of any of these situations can bring on anxiety for social phobia sufferers, reinforcing their avoidance of social events.

“Social anxiety can come and go and is usually triggered during times of stress or change, such as a relationship breakup, leaving school, moving to a new area or a new job,” explains Leanne. “It can also be triggered by particular situations or people – for example if someone does make fun of you, or if you happen to run into your ex unexpectedly.”

What can you do about social anxiety?

If you’re struggling with social anxiety, it’s important to seek professional help. Social anxiety treatment may involve talking therapies, behavioural treatment, social skills training, lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medication.

“Talking therapies teach strategies to help you understand triggers and learn how to defuse the anxiety, and perhaps challenge and rewrite past experiences, so that you feel more empowered and confident,” says Leanne.

Other treatments, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, help you better understand and challenge the underlying thoughts that create the anxiety you feel, while exposure therapy (also known as desensitisation) helps you gradually become used to those situations to overcome your fear. Social-skills training uses role playing and modelling techniques in a group-therapy setting to help you become more comfortable surrounded by others.

My number-one piece of advice to people who are experiencing social anxiety is: don’t let it win

Social anxiety tips

Regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating nutritious scheduled meals and reducing caffeine intake can all help reduce anxiety, while relaxation techniques – such as progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, meditation and visualisation – may also help you reduce anxious feelings.

“My number-one piece of advice to people experiencing social anxiety is: don’t let it win,” says Leanne. “It wants you to be alone because it thinks no one will like you. In a way, it thinks it’s protecting you from rejection and disappointment. Prove it wrong.”

Push back on your avoidance, gently, she advises – and enlist the help of a friend or loved one who can encourage and support you without judgement.
“Plan your social outings so that you can leave early and you have someone with you who understands,” Leanne advises. “Have an escape word or strategy that you can use if things get too difficult. The main thing is to know you are not stuck or trapped and can leave at any time.

“And, of course, always seek professional help if you feel the social anxiety is continuing to get in the way of you living your life.”

Are you suffering with your mental health and unsure where or who to turn to? We asked nib mental health nurse Jo Baja to put together a list of six resources that can help. The best part is, they’re free and only a website, app or phone call away. Check out our article 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing for more.

If you have an urgent need for help with your mental health, contact one of the helplines below.

  • Lifeline (24 hours): 13 11 14

  • Kids Helpline (24 hours): 1800 55 1800

  • MensLine Australia (24 hours): 1300 78 99 78

  • SANE Helpline (mental illness information, support and referral): 1800 18 7263

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

Leanne Hall

Leanne Hall is an integrative psychologist with additional qualifications in health and fitness and an impressive career as a therapist and health coach spanning more than 20 years. She’s the author of Head First Health Fast, The Smart Approach To Outwitting Body Issues and Sustaining Achievable Health and is currently completing her PhD in Ultra Running. Leanne is passionate about debunking the myth of 'balance' and keeps it real in everything she does. Something not many people know is that Leanne can mimic bird noises very well...