Fear. Apprehension. Avoidance. Pain. Anxious about what you said. Terrified you did something wrong. Anticipating others’ disapproval. Scared of rejection and of not fitting in. Worried about how to enter a conversation, afraid you won’t have anything to talk about. Living in constant fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by others, leading to frequent feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression. This is what it is like to live with social anxiety. All day. Every day.
Studies have recently pegged Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) as the third largest mental health issue in the United States, after depression and alcoholism. It is estimated that about 7% of the population suffers from some form of social anxiety at the present time. If someone you care about or work with has social anxiety, it’s important to find ways to support that individual, rather than criticize and/or condemn. In no particular order, here are a handful of well-meaning statements you might want to avoid when you’re trying to help a loved one cope with social anxiety.
“Why are you so quiet?”
5 words that people with SAD loathe hearing. We seem to live in a society that values outgoing, loud people over quiet people. Being quiet is somehow not acceptable in our culture, so if you aren’t talkative enough, then you must be “brought out of your shell”. But asking a person with social anxiety why they are quiet is probably the easiest and most effective way of making that person feel worse. Not only are you singling out someone who doesn’t want to be the center of attention, but you’re also bringing attention to that person’s anxiety.
Instead, try asking the other person open-ended questions about topics that they are passionate about. Or better yet, share stories and details about yourself first before asking too much of the person with SAD. Most people who are socially anxious enjoy listening to others more than talking about themselves.
“You need to just calm down.”
One of the most common myths is that an anxious person can calm down on command. But telling someone with SAD to “just calm down” is akin to telling someone with allergies to “just stop sneezing”. The debilitating problem with social anxiety disorder is that the anxiety sufferer simply can’t calm down. If they could, they would. Telling someone to “calm down” is invalidating to the person who is struggling and implies that they are choosing to feel anxious and that they have the ability to flip a switch in their brains and enter a mode of tranquility on command. If only it were that simple.
Instead, ask the other person how you can best support them in the moment or ask, “What do you need?” Offer to do something with them to help alleviate their symptoms, such as taking a walk, going to the gym together, or meditation.
“I totally understand. I felt the same way when I gave my presentation/went to the dentist’s office/had a job interview, etc.”
Unless you have been diagnosed with SAD, never ever say anything like this to someone suffering from social anxiety, because you have no idea how they feel. Just because you have experienced some nervousness before giving a speech or attending a job interview, does not mean that you have a thorough understanding of what someone struggling with an anxiety disorder is going through. And for the record, shyness and social anxiety are two different things. Shyness is a personality trait. Many people who are shy do not experience the difficult, painful emotions and feelings that accompany social anxiety disorder. They live a normal, functioning life and do not view shyness as a negative trait.
“Wow, your face is turning bright red!”
Studies show that when people tell you your face is turning red (even if it’s not) you will begin to turn red. When people tell us we are blushing we hear: ‘I’m judging you negatively.’ At least this is what we assume is happening. According to a study published in Behaviour Research and Therapy: “The belief one is blushing brings about negative beliefs about the judgment of others, and might even enhance the blush response itself.” Those with SAD often find that having a redder face causes them a great deal of embarrassment. They want to hide their face in public, which ultimately makes them more self-conscious and possibly creates more anxiety in the future. Avoid pointing this out. It is not something that is within the person’s control, and calling attention to it will only further embarrass them.
“But you don’t seem anxious.”
It’s not always obvious that someone is suffering from social anxiety. In addition, that person might be on medication or may be trying incredibly hard to overcome their feelings. Although “you seem fine” may actually be intended to sound reassuring, it is invalidating to the person experiencing the anxiety, because they feel like they’re not being heard. Social anxiety is not always visible. Not everyone shakes or hyperventilates when they have a panic attack. Many individuals with SAD have learned to hide their anxiety very well. But that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.
Instead, listen to the other person when they tell you how they feel. Ask, “Can you tell me more about your experience?” If they prefer not to talk about it, don’t push them. Listen when they are ready to share.
“Everything will be fine.”
There is no way you can know that. This uncertainty is a big factor that fuels anxiety. When someone says this to a person experiencing SAD, it can feel dismissive—causing them to shut down emotionally, thus preventing any further exploration or conversation about what they’re experiencing. Saying everything will be ok without really exploring the fears and feelings of the person in front of you is as useful as telling them that you are going to give them $10,000 to cheer them up. Unless you have the cash on hand and plan to deliver it, it’s an empty promise.
Instead, let the person know that it is okay to feel anxious, fearful, worried, apprehensive, etc. There is an element of shame associated with these emotions that makes it hard for some people to even acknowledge them, let alone open up to others about what they’re experiencing. It can be helpful to reassure the other person that you care and do not judge him or her negatively for feeling the way they do.
So, there you have it! By avoiding the use of stigmatizing statements and approaching those struggling with social anxiety with compassion and understanding, you can help to eradicate some of the shame that is associated with this chronic, often debilitating disorder. If you or someone you know is suffering from social anxiety, seek professional help from a licensed therapist and/or support from loved ones.
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