How to Support Someone with Social Anxiety
WRITTEN BY STEFF BRAND, M.S., Nationally Certified Counselor, LPC-Intern
Data from the World Mental Health (WMH) Survey Initiative reveals that nearly 12% of Americans, at some point in their life, will meet criteria for social anxiety disorder (SAD). This means their anxiety is so impactful that it gets in the way of daily living. For the shy individuals out there, that are currently self-diagnosing, know that the problem must be severe enough to interfere with your ability to succeed at school, work, and other social settings. Especially critical for diagnosing kids, symptoms must be recognized for at least six months. In adults, SAD can be shown through anxious behaviors, nausea, or panic attacks in public settings. In children, it is often manifested through crying, tantrums, or social withdrawal.
Individuals with social anxiety are susceptible to negative automatic thoughts or fears that can sometimes be difficult to rationalize to others:
“I am clearly over-dressed. Everyone must think I am trying to show off.”
“I am definitely under-dressed. Everyone must think I do not care.”
“People will think I am weird if I try to join their conversation.”
“I will go to happy hour with another couple, but I will not do well at a big party.”
“That person keeps looking at me while I am eating. They must think I look like a pig.”
“I practiced this speech all night but will probably still look bad in front of my boss.”
“People at this party will judge me if I look awkward dancing.”
“I’ll go to that event, but I am bringing a friend that I already know.”
“I said the wrong thing last week.”
“They did not respond to my text, so they must be annoyed with me.”
“I hate being put on the spot in front of everyone.”
“I am scared to answer that question in front of my class.”
“Two hours is not enough time to prepare that report.”
“I could have used a stronger word in that email I sent this morning.”
Ask individuals that are socially anxious to journal these thoughts and look for objective evidence that contradicts the negative beliefs. Avoid making them feel like they are over-reacting or as if their feelings are invalid. Something important to remember is that social anxiety is also associated with deep empathy, pro-social behavior, high-standards, and strong performance. An individual with this diagnosis can be a really great friend, worker, team member, and romantic partner. Identifying and supporting their unique fears, without over-accommodating their needs, can help them thrive and succeed in immense ways.
How to Support Your Employee
o Do not ask about private health information. Only start a dialogue if you notice their behaviors are getting in the way of their career.
o Be aware that there is a high possibility you manage someone with social anxiety. Watch for workplace warning signs like procrastination, perfectionism, and 110% effort.
o Do not mistake introversion for social anxiety. There are a variety of personality styles and you do not necessarily need to be concerned if an employee chooses to recharge alone at their desk while everyone else eats lunch in groups.
o Understand that strong criticism likely will not help. Individuals with social anxiety often become fixated on their shortcomings and will negate their contributions. They tend to worry about humiliation in regard to their mistakes. Trust me, they have already self-criticized enough.
o Give out positivity sandwiches. Start and end with your employees’ strengths. Try “I really appreciate your 9PM email and can tell you are working really hard. What do we need to do so that you are not having to allocate so much time to each task? You have a lot of potential with this company and I want to ensure we are maximizing your skills.”
o Empower strong employees to delegate with intent. Recognize when members of your team feel the need to over polish every task. Help them prioritize their workloads and get the support they need from others.
o Be careful not to overaccommodate employees that are anxious. Social anxiety is maintained through avoidance so do not allow them to opt out of all opportunities to face their fears.
o Check-in with your team on a regular basis. Schedule it into your week rather than waiting for warning signs. Know your employees’ personal goals and where they feel they are lacking support.
How to Support Your Partner
o Know your partner’s triggers. Talk about these often, so you can better understand their reactions in public settings.
o Look for warning signs and patterns. Does your partner get uncharacteristically quiet when they are uncomfortable? Do they talk in a different voice to show their nerves?
o Normalize their reactions when things get tough. If you know they feel intimidated by someone in the room, try “it makes total sense that you are uncomfortable right now.”
o If possible, try to explain the setting before going to an event. Who else will be there? Will there be dancing? What will people be wearing? How late will people expect you to stay?
o Practice 1-10 scaling questions before and throughout social events. “Is your anxiety level at a 2 or a 10 right now?” “How can I help you get from a 10 to a 7?”
o Discuss coping strategies, and in some cases, an exit plan for when anxiety levels are at a 10. Select a code word or signal your partner can use to communicate a call for help.
o Do not assume. Just because your partner has been okay in similar situations does not mean this time will be the same.
How to Support Your Child
o Identify emotions before dismissing behavior. A common reaction to crying is “stop with the meltdowns.” In its place, try “I can tell you are sad. When you calm down, we can talk about how I can help you.”
o Instead of telling your child what they should NOT do, model what they SHOULD be doing. Try replacing “do not ignore people” with “say hello if you do not know what to say.”
o Help your child identify realistic, small goals in difficult or scary situations. Maybe they can try talking to one person they do not know at soccer tryouts.
o Look for indication that the shyness is impacting their ability to succeed on a regular basis. Adults can usually identify when their thoughts and behaviors are excessive, but children often cannot.
o While in a safe space, teach your child to role-play healthy responses to challenging social situations. Practicing in private empowers them to make an effort in public.
o Schedule an appointment with a counselor that is well-versed in cognitive behavioral interventions, like exposure therapy.
How to Support Your Students
o Give students a chance to academically perform in different ways. Knowing they have to read a speech in front of their peers could impact their ability to be as vulnerable and creative as they might be with a journal assignment that is kept private.
o Provide a preliminary grading structure to encourage them to spend more time on certain tasks and avoid over-analyzing and perfecting every assignment.
o Give everyone a chance to express themselves in a comfortable way. Students that are socially anxious might be wary to raise their hand first, but if everyone gives feedback on an anonymous notecard, you can help all your students feel heard.
o Know your class. Know who you should not put on the spot for an answer to your question. Do not allow students to slack off but give them an opportunity to take risks in front of their peers when they are ready.
o Help them manage their perfectionism by learning their peers’ benchmarks. Poll the class in regard to their time spent practicing a presentation. Share the number of the drafts your students create on average before turning in a final paper.
o Like track coaches sometimes ask athletes to practice running at 75%, ask students to sometimes intentionally give less than 100% on their work. Help them understand the difference and how to navigate between the different levels of effort.
o Compliment students’ strengths as often as you can. Normalize their mistakes and offer constructive feedback in private. Give them opportunities to succeed through a variety of avenues.
These are just a few suggestions to help support the people in your life that are dealing with social anxiety. The first symptoms of social anxiety disorder are often exposed between ages 10 and 19 and both genetic and environmental factors contribute. For clinical treatment, collective research suggests that medication works faster, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers longer-lasting benefits. Even if full criteria are not met, the CBT interventions can be beneficial to children learning to interact socially. They will absorb tools to help them self-manage otherwise difficult, trying situations down the road. If the aforementioned symptoms sound relatable to you or your child, please feel comfortable reaching out to me with questions or to schedule an appointment. I also offer free 15-minute phone consultations to help you determine if services are right for you.