Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach for New Life

Most of us are no strangers to anxiety. Anxiety is a normal reaction humans have to several different kinds of experiences in our lives, especially if they are new, unexpected or otherwise stressful. While occasional anxiety can be helpful by alerting us to potential dangers or threats, excessive worry and fear can be problematic and may indicate an anxiety disorder.

There are many different types of anxiety disorders. One common type of anxiety disorder is known as social anxiety disorder (SAD) and affects how an individual interacts with others in their daily life. Many people who struggle with social anxiety disorder also struggle with a co-occurring substance use disorder (SUD). It is important to understand that both anxiety-related disorders and addiction are treatable. It can help to know how social anxiety disorder develops, especially in conjunction with addiction, and how an individual can work to overcome it with the help of professional treatment and at-home practices.

What is social anxiety disorder?

SAD, also known as social phobia or social anxiety, is a condition characterized by persistent anxiety and the fear of being judged or negatively evaluated by others. Individuals with this disorder may fear being scrutinized so deeply that they struggle to complete everyday tasks such as eating or drinking in public, attending school, going to work or engaging in social situations altogether.

To be diagnosed with SAD, symptoms must be present for at least six months. Individuals with SAD may experience the following symptoms when having to be around or perform in front of others:

  • Excessive blushing, sweating or trembling
  • Increased heart rate
  • Feeling sick to their stomach
  • Feeling as if their mind is going blank
  • Rigid body posture
  • Difficulty making eye contact
  • Feeling self-conscious
  • Fearing negative judgment from others
  • Avoiding places where there are many people

The symptoms that accompany SAD exist on a continuum, meaning that they range in severity and intensity. One person who struggles with SAD may feel symptoms so severe that their condition causes them to avoid leaving their home, while another person who struggles with the condition may be able to leave their home and accomplish various daily tasks though fear and anxiety make doing so uncomfortable or difficult.

What causes social anxiety disorder?

Although social anxiety can affect children and adults alike, the condition typically develops during childhood or adolescence. Still, some people develop SAD much later in life. Some people who have experienced the disorder can identify when their symptoms initially began and associate the onset of symptoms with a particular event or experience. Others may have seen themselves as shy or apprehensive much of their lives when they have really been experiencing social anxiety.

Like any mental health condition, social anxiety develops from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Anxiety disorders tend to run in families. Some individuals who have an overactive amygdala—the brain structure involved in regulating stress/fear response—may be more vulnerable to developing anxiety-related disorders. Children who endure negative experiences throughout childhood—particularly instances of teasing, bullying, humiliation and rejection—also experience an increased risk of developing social anxiety. Additionally, SAD can come as a result of or be a cause of developing an addiction.

Treating Social Anxiety

The treatment of social anxiety disorder typically involves behavioral therapy, medication or a combination of the two. Support groups can also be effective as they encourage social support in a group setting with others who share similar feelings.

Effective behavioral treatments include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Helps patients become aware of how their thought, feeling and behavior patterns influence each other
  • Exposure therapy: Helps patients become desensitized to seemingly threatening stimuli and involves gradual exposure to real-life situations to help patients overcome fears
  • Social skills training: Involves social contact in a group therapy setting to practice social skills; training helps patients feel more comfortable engaging with and relating to others

Medications used to treat social anxiety disorder vary. Some may benefit from prescription antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications or sedatives. Prescription medications used to treat mental health conditions must be taken exactly as directed by a doctor. What can you do to overcome social anxiety at home?

While professional treatment is the most effective way to overcome social anxiety alongside substance abuse, there are things that individuals can do at home to help reduce fear and anxiety. Here are a few examples:

#1. Focus on your breath.

Social anxiety is ruled by intrusive thoughts. The physical effects of anxiety can also be uncomfortable and lead to worsening symptoms. Focusing on your breath is a way to self-soothe and self-regulate. Try to focus on your breath whenever you begin to feel anxious.

#2. Place your focus elsewhere.

Rather than getting stuck in your thoughts, shift your focus to external things. This may require you to tune in to conversations more intimately. Work on being present and mindful of what is happening outside of yourself in the present moment.

#3. Override negative thoughts.

Intrusive thoughts and fears that result from social anxiety tend to become automatic over time. When you hear these thoughts, talk back to them. Remind yourself that you have always been able to get through social situations, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel from time to time.

New Life Addiction Counseling and Mental Health Services offers expert treatment for those struggling with substance abuse and other mental health problems, including social anxiety. To learn more about our treatment programs and services, or to learn more about effective treatment options for anxiety-related disorders, call us today at (877) 929-2571.