When strung together, these two words can offer endless promise:
What if I win the lottery? What if I get my dream job? What if I meet the love of my life?
Or, debilitating fear:
What if I say the wrong thing? What if I embarrass myself? What if I am judged?
While it’s normal for children and teens (and anyone, for that matter) to worry or feel anxious, especially before public speaking or performing, the 15 million Americans with social anxiety disorder experience excruciating fear that disrupts their day to day life.
Social anxiety goes far beyond shyness. According to the Child Mind Institute, “Kids with social anxiety disorder are so worried about being judged negatively by others that they are terrified of doing or saying anything that may cause humiliation. The fear feels uncontrollable, even though older children often realize that their preoccupation isn’t reasonable.” A vicious cycle may ensue, in which people with social anxiety disorder recognize that their fears are blown out of proportion and then criticize themselves for having such exaggerated fears. And as we know, being self-critical doesn’t help!
Plus, social anxiety disorder often goes unnoticed or undiagnosed. Often, the tendencies of people with social anxiety disorder — like avoiding certain situations, isolating oneself, or experiencing bouts of intense fear — take root so deeply that the damage is long-lasting. What’s more, people with the condition know their fears are exaggerated but feel helpless to stop them. According to BodiMojo founder, clinical psychologist Tara Cousineau, a fundamental part of managing a social anxiety disorder is noticing symptoms early, before they take over: “When social anxiety disorder gets overlooked and dismissed, that inner critic just keeps going along…at the expense of cultivating interpersonal skills.”
Symptoms often develop earlier than many might think. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the typical onset of social anxiety disorder is age 13. Recognizing the signs of social anxiety disorder at a young age is crucial. Not only can social anxiety disorder cause someone to miss out on developing important social skills, if left untreated, the ensuing isolation and anxiety can also lead to depression or substance abuse later in life.
But there is good news.
Social anxiety disorder is treatable. It’s also becoming more and more recognized by health care providers, educators, and parents as a concern beyond shyness or introversion. According to the ADAA, over a third of those with the condition report experiencing symptoms for 7-10 years or more before seeking help. Treatment options include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), medication, and complementary and alternative approaches.We hope that increased awareness will help people recognize signs and symptoms early on, seek treatment, and reduce stigma about the disorder.
(See Dr. Tara on a HuffPostLive panel with 3 young people with SAD, Ben, Quentin and Claire)
As Dr. Tara says, people can become so accustomed to their own inner critic that they’re already thinking about the tragic ending to a movie that isn’t taking place!
If you think you or someone you know may have social anxiety disorder, please consult a health provider. We offer a few techniques that may help those with social anxiety disorder:
Get Counseling. Share what’s going on with an expert. Be specific about what scares you. Also, learning interpersonal skills can be a key component of managing social anxiety. After years of sitting on the sidelines or hiding at home, it takes practice and courage to start speak up, to meet new people, or participate in group activities.
Connect body and mind. Pay attention to what’s going on in your mind and in your body. Practice breathing skills to calm the flight, fight and freeze response. Breathing is an essential part of healing.
Cultivate mindfulness. Learning how to be a non-judgmental observer of your mind. This helps alleviate the fears and to see them as simply an overactive critical voice. Find a meditation or yoga teacher to show you different ways to be mindful, such as mindful sitting, walking, stretching, eating and listening.
Observe your mind as a movie. Notice the conversation and stories in your head without judging it as good or bad. Be curious. Remember that you have control over your thoughts. You can redirect your thoughts at any moment and write a new script.
Seek social support. People with social anxiety feel embarrassed and experience shame. The only way out is to share your story and help people understand what you go through every day. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or counselor. Remember that we all experience ups, downs, and everything in between. Check in with someone who cares about you. You may just find that you aren’t alone.
Be kind to yourself. It’s hard enough to feel captive to your fears; it’s worse when you blame yourself. Social anxiety disorder is a medical diagnosis.Be easy on yourself as you learn new skills. Treat yourself like you would a friend in need: Show empathy.