Social anxiety seems to be a term that is lightly tossed around these days and used often to express shyness, social awkwardness, and having unpracticed social skills. In particular young adults describe this anxiety when meeting new friends with phrases such as “I don't fit in.”, or “I feel alone most of the time.” Some college students describe college social life as awkward and uncomfortable. An entire semester may pass without there being any solid connections made. Even hall mates and roommates may not register on the social scale.
Is this expressed anxiety and sadness around not making peer connections true social anxiety or is this truly the case of...perhaps….underdeveloped social skills making life difficult?
Let’s look closer.
With college students, often times peers, mentors, parents, and advisors will say to the kid who struggles with anxiety when meeting new people (especially on large campuses), "Just go make friends", as if this is an easy solution. They forget to insert the HOW part.
The first feeling that presents itself is...you guessed it....anxiety! “How do I ‘just go make friends’”? The mere echo of these words brings about extreme feelings of "I can't do this". "I'm terrified". It is much easier for someone to give advice about something with which they have no emotional connection, so these words of “helpful advice” can be paralyzing. They only accentuate the already felt inadequacies.
However, these feelings of being inadequate in the social department and feeling out of place, unfit, disconnected and awkward at college do not equate to having diagnosed social anxiety. [Read that statement again]. If you don’t know how to meet people, whether you are on a large campus, small campus or in high school, strengthening this life skill will help lessen the attached anxiety, but this does not mean you have diagnosable social anxiety. It CAN mean you have a form of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but it can often mean you have social skills that need to be worked on.
Meeting friends can be difficult and can cause feelings of overwhelm, but after learning simple ways to build social skills, the task becomes less daunting.
As a professional lifestyle coach who works specifically with college students and anxiety, I am told often, "I just stay in my room because everyone else already had their group". Or, I will hear "It's so hard to meet people in class". There is a lack of awareness about the "how to" and the "what" - meaning: "How can I feel more comfortable when I am around new people"? "What can I do to extend myself"? "How can I feel vulnerable and still share that I'd like to be friends"?
This is when having social skills versus not having polished social skills is apparent. Laying aside any feelings of angst, if you have not been taught, modeled or had the opportunity to extend yourself in social situations (groups, dates, church, clubs, neighborhoods, family gatherings) making friends will be hard; so is learning to ride a bicycle if you've never had a bike or no one has taken the time to practice with you. Golf. Same thing.
Be clear though that clinical social anxiety is much more than being shy or not knowing how to make friends. With about 7% of our population struggling with social anxiety, notice the keystone characteristics stated in the DSM-5 which are more far more pronounced than lacking proper social skills:
According the DSM-5 Social Anxiety Disorder is:
"A persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or to possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show symptoms) that will be embarrassing and humiliating)."
"Exposure to the feared situation almost invariably provokes anxiety, which may take the form of a situationally bound or situationally predisposed Panic Attack".
"The person recognizes that this fear is unreasonable or excessive".
"The feared situations are avoided or else are endured with intense anxiety and distress".
"The avoidance, anxious anticipation, or distress in the feared social or performance situation(s) interferes significantly with the person's normal routine, occupational (academic) functioning, or social activities or relationships, or there is marked distress about having the phobia".
"The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting 6 or more months".
"The fear or avoidance is not due to direct physiological effects of a substance or a general medical condition not better accounted for by another mental disorder".
While both social anxiety and less-than-desired social skills can be the cause of worry, angst, and sometimes sadness, strengthening social skills will help lessen the pain and discomfort you feel when wanting to extend yourself. Remember these 4 key points:
1. We are social beings. It is a fundamental need to want to be accepted and liked. Biologically we need to feel a part of others.
2. The acknowledgment of fear and avoidance has to be focused on in order to make progress when building socially interacting skills. Whether you struggle with true SA (and all of the intense interruptions it causes) or underutilized social skills, running away from that which makes you uncomfortable is counterproductive in your progress.
3. Make baby steps in the formation of basic social skills. Attempt to make simple personal connections with a new face every day. This will be the foundation of managing the discomfort. Visualize a pyramid. Start at the bottom by practicing at the grocery store or the coffee shop. Make eye contact. Next trip in, smile. Next trip ask about their day. Build, build, build because as you revisit the same clerk each time you are facing the fear of rejection or the fear of saying something "dumb". You are actually strengthening your social awareness -just like you lift weights to build muscle. Attempting social connections builds social skills. Consistent effort and practice is the only action that will "advance" your feelings on uneasiness and elevate your level of comfort.
4. Change faulty thoughts of "not being accepted" or "not being right for some groups". This is critical to managing social anxieties. How do you do this? Consciously remind yourself that feeling anxious in social settings does not mean you have clinical social anxiety or social phobia, as it is sometimes referred to. It may mean your are shy. It may mean you are truly most content when alone. Try to focus externally on another person in the new situation instead of internally focusing on yourself. Resist the instinct to "flee" when in the midst of an anxious encounter. Allow the fear and breathe through it. Roleplay in your head, or in the mirror. Listen after someone speaks and make a simple statement or observation, or ask a question. Compliment. Take more deep breaths. Do not allow a rejection to reinforce negative thoughts about yourself. Look approachable, not scared. [Safe topics for conversation are food, music, animals, and weather]. Ask about interests. Accept invitations and follow through even though the fear will creep back up before going. Self-talk your way through an anxious social situation.
Exposure, practice, and correcting and challenging the irrational thoughts centered around your anxiety will be the most helpful and effective actions you will take to build your comfort in social settings. Building social skills takes time, and there are endless opportunities each day to practice. Remind yourself every step of the way that positive, self-talking and reinforcing statements speak the ultimate truth. Here are some to use:
"I like myself and am proud of myself for trying to meet a new friend."
"Even though this attempt didn't work, I am willing to try again."
"I am taking risks and this is how I will progress in life."
"How can 'no one like me' when I haven't let them get to know me?"
"As hard as this is, this is the only way I will make connections."
"They won’t seek me out. I have to seek them out."
"This is only one minute, in one day, in one month, in one year, in one lifetime that I may not get accepted. There will be others and I am learning how to accept this without the attached feelings of rejection."
"Practice will make 'perfect'."
"So what. I am shy, but I still can smile at someone I am interested in getting to know."
"No one knows how painful this is for me so I will not dwell on in either, I will act."