10 Things Your Friend With Social Anxiety Wishes You Knew

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It's not your fault, but there are some things you should understand.

By Amy Marturana for Self.com

Imagine spending your whole night out with friends focusing on what everyone is thinking about you, and how they’re judging every word that comes out of your mouth. Then when you go home, spending the next few hours replaying everything you said, wondering whether or not everyone else there thought it was cool, smart, or witty, or if you just sounded stupid and ruined everyone’s time.

This is the life of someone with social anxiety.

Social anxiety, or social phobia, affects about 15 million American adults. Even though it’s extremely common, it can be tough for people who’ve never experienced this fear of human interaction to understand it.

Here are the important facts about social anxiety your friend coping with it wishes you knew.

1. It’s not you, it’s her.

“The most important thing is to not take someone else’s anxiety personally,” explains Julie Pike, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and expert in the treatment of anxiety disorders. “Because it really has nothing to do with us as individuals. If I’m anxious with 100 percent of a large friend group, it’s not them.” And it doesn’t mean your friend doesn’t trust you or feel comfortable around you.

However, if you’ve fought recently and there’s residual tension, she may have a tough time moving past that and feeling confident in the interaction. Again, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong. But it means she, for whatever reason, is afraid of being judged or saying the wrong thing.

2. If she’s acting aloof, it’s probably because she’s trying to control her anxiety.

If a friend with social anxiety seems disinterested in your conversation, like she’s ignoring you, or giving you the cold shoulder at a party, it’s not that she doesn’t want to talk to you. She’s just really focusing all her energy into quelling that anxiety. 

“Often people don’t notice socially anxious people are anxious,” says Dianne Chambless, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of clinical training for the University of Pennsylvania’s department of psychology. “It may just look like they’re acting cold.” Which, ironically, can make someone come across as less likeable, the thing socially anxious people fear most. 

3. She’s not trying to ditch you, she just really can’t handle going out right now.

If your friend is turning down plans to go out or cancelling on you, it may just be that she’s trying to avoid situations that give her anxiety. Instead of fading away and writing her off as a bad friend (which will just reinforce her feelings that she is faulty and not enjoyable to be around), carefully reach out and find out what’s up. Chances are, an honest conversation will clear up any doubts about where you both stand.

4. She may even experience social anxiety around her closest friends, so don’t be offended.

While anxiety around strangers is more typical, some people may have a tougher time around close friends.

“It’s less common, but there’s no hard and fast rule,” Dr. Pike explains. “It’s really more about what we regard as most threatening. If my brain registers it as more of a threat if my friends judge me poorly than if strangers do, then that’s what I’m going to be anxious about.”

5. She does want to spend time with other people and build new relationships, it’s just really hard.

Part of the reason social anxiety is so frustrating is because people suffering from it care too much about forming relationships, even though it may seem like the opposite.

“If they didn’t care about being with other people, it wouldn’t be distressing,” Chambless explains. “People with social anxiety are unhappy about not having relationships.”

6. Having a socially anxious moment can cause a mind blank, followed by a serious spiral of awkwardness.

When your body senses fear and your sympathetic nervous system (your “fight or flight” response) kicks in, you can actually lose your ability to concentrate or remember, Pike explains. “People then get on a continuous feedback loop, where because they blank out, have an awkward interaction, and then go home and rehash it and kick themselves and feel horrible for having blanked out, they become so apprehensive of the next time,” says Pike.

Then the anxiety just compounds. If this happens to your friend, just be calm and let them feel anxious and gather their thoughts without pushing.

7. You can be a confident woman and still be socially anxious.

People with social anxiety may actually be very confident in other skills or parts of their lives, even though they lack self-confidence when it comes to meeting new people or interacting with a group. “Anytime anyone has significant anxiety about something, they lack self confidence about that situation,” Chambless explains.

But interacting with people is a huge part of life, so having serious anxiety in that realm can impact other aspects of life that someone does feel rock-solid in.

8. Skip the huge party—she’d rather a small gathering.

Other than public speaking (for some people), going to a big party is probably the scariest place for someone with social anxiety. Parties involve a lot of chitchat, which is extremely anxiety inducing. “People with social anxiety have a tough time with chitchat, because they believe everything they have to say has to be smart or witty,” Chambless says.

Even though, let’s be honest, most chitchat is boring and mundane, those with social phobias still are afraid of being judged for saying the wrong thing. 

9. If she’s getting wasted a lot, it could be her way of dealing with social situations.

Some people turn to alcohol to self-medicate in social situations, Chambless notes. If your friend is drinking too much every time you go to a party, have a frank conversation and tell her you’re concerned. “They may be doing this to cope with anxiety, but it’s not going to help in the long run.”

Simply say something like, “I’m concerned about you, I’ve noticed this and it’s not like you to get that drunk. I’ve seen this happen a number of times and it worries me.” Showing you care, instead of getting angry when you have to put her in a cab home again, reassures her that you truly want what’s best for her. 

10. Your encouragement helps, but please do not tell her to stop being anxious.

Unless your friend tells you to not do so, encouraging someone who is socially anxious to face their fears is the best way to help them—that, combined with letting them know they’re doing OK.

“The biggest thing is not to tell someone to not be anxious,” Pike explains. “The best thing people can say is, ‘I know this is hard for you and I’m proud of you,’ or ‘Good for you, I love you, I care about you.’”

Then, help guide them through challenging situations, and encourage them to do things that make their anxiety higher (within reason) so that it’ll get easier with time. They don’t want to be anxious forever, and a little boost up from a friend may be exactly what they need to start overcoming those fears.

This article was originally published at Self.com. Reprinted with permission from the author.


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