It seems like almost everyone struggles with anxiety in one form or another these days. For most people, they may just be dealing with symptoms of stress. Other times, the anxiety is so debilitating that it is difficult for them to find the strength to even get out of bed. Though many of the symptoms of stress and anxiety are similar, anxiety often exaggerates them to a higher degree.
Stress can make one feel overwhelmed by the amount of work expected of them, while anxiety causes people to think they are being watched or negatively judged by their peers for seemingly normal acts. Stress can be treated by employing deep breathing exercises, getting enough sleep, avoiding caffeine, and modifying other external behaviors. Anxiety, on the other hand, begins internally and is only treated with the modification of thought patterns and challenging of beliefs. People with social anxiety, for instance, may avoid going to class, joining a club, or attending new social activities for the constant fear that others are judging them. Simply eating with a new group of people can cause extreme discomfort or even panic amongst those with social anxiety. Though their situation can feel hopeless, there are certain treatment options available to help people cope with their social anxiety and even gain freedom from it altogether.
What Helps Social Anxiety and What Doesn’t
There are two main approaches therapists (and school administrators, and parents) take when it comes to helping someone overcome their social anxiety. One method is avoidance, meaning they allow the person to avoid situations that trigger their symptoms. A student may be allowed to leave a class if they become overwhelmed. Or, they may attend specialized classes that are oriented toward students with anxiety issues. Some fear that this system, with no progression toward normalcy, does not prepare people for the “real world”, where colleges and workplaces may not be as accommodating.
Exposure therapy is another tactic which repeatedly introduces patients to anxiety-inducing activities until they learn to cope with each situation. However, this method may just teach patients to get through one anxious situation to the next, while never really curing the anxiety itself. Exposure therapy can work with individuals who have an objective of also changing their thought patterns in each situation.
Anxiety may tell people that something bad will happen if they participate in an activity. They may make a fool of themselves at a party or they may spill their food in front of others when eating. While these particular scenarios likely have never happened to individuals struggling with anxiety, they may have experienced other embarrassing situations that they wish not to repeat, and thus avoid many social engagements.
Stress and anxiety are natural responses of the body and brain to situations that may harm us. Stress and anxiety responses can be extremely helpful when one needs to protect themselves from a hungry lion. However, this fight or flight response is nearly always turned on in individuals struggling with anxiety, which can be debilitating in terms of carrying out everyday activities and may even lead to depression. Talking to a stranger is equated to a life or death situation in individuals with anxiety.
Helping those affected utilize coping skills during anxious moments is helpful, but coupling this with modified thought patterns is necessary for ultimate recovery. This is a process called cognitive behavioral therapy. It may take repeating positive truths about certain situations, like, “I’m not in danger, it doesn’t matter if this stranger likes me or not, and I will survive this interaction,” while exposing the patient to various social interactions. As the negative thoughts are slowly replaced by positive and empowering thoughts, the patient can truly overcome their social anxiety. Although some people may overcome their anxiety on their own, a therapist can greatly increase the chances of success for healing. Anxiety is also not something that can be cured overnight, but it will take time to fully overcome the effects.