About This Resource
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How It Helps
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Togetherall is a safe and inclusive community of support for wellness and substance use.
If you'd like to join Togetherall's safe and inclusive community, you can create an account for free. Creating an account will give you access to all the resources on the Wellness Together Canada portal, including self-guided courses, webinars, peer-to-peer support groups, live counselling, mindfulness meditations, and more. You’ll also be able to complete a wellness assessment and track your progress towards your wellness goals.
What are shyness & social anxiety?
It’s important to understand that everyone’s experience of social anxiety and shyness is different. It might be that someone is just generally quite shy. Or, someone might be avoidant of social situations due to a fear of embarrassment and shame. Others may lack assertiveness skills, which could act as a barrier to feeling comfortable in social settings.
It’s normal to feel shy sometimes. It is something that everyone has experienced. If you ask about people’s first day at school, first-ever date, first job interview, or first experience with public speaking, most people will recall feeling shy, nervous, or anxious.
But feeling shy and anxious becomes problematic when it interferes with our daily life. Social anxiety can force us to live more restrictive lives and suffer from distress. This anxiety becomes worse when we can’t avoid social situations, or when they’re sprung upon us.
Social anxiety disorder is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) as:
“A marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny from others. The individual fears that [they] will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.”
Other features of social anxiety include:
Avoidance of situations where there is a risk of judgment from others.
Increased risk of depression.
Using alcohol to cope with social situations.
Using drugs to cope with social situations.
Strong feelings of shame and/or embarrassment.
How is social anxiety maintained?
Social anxiety can have many causes. We might be naturally anxious. Or we might have become anxious after experiencing bullying or abusive behaviour.
Therapy can help address social anxiety. There are also things you can do in the here and now to help reduce social anxiety. Unfortunately, the more we “practise” being socially anxious, the more socially anxious we become.
The 5 Areas Model below shows the vicious circle of social anxiety.
There are many triggers that can cause social anxiety. Common examples of social anxiety triggers include:
Parties & social events.
Talking to strangers.
Anxiety symptoms that may be visible to others, such as sweating, blushing, and shaking.
Doing things where others might be watching.
When triggered, we can feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts. Anxious thoughts often come up when we overestimate a threat and underestimate our ability to cope. Thoughts can be overwhelming before, during, and after social situations. Planning what to say, not knowing how to respond, and going over conversations after social events are common marks of social anxiety.
Overestimation of threat: “There are a few people I don’t know in the study group. They will probably think I’m weird for being so shy.”
Underestimation of coping: “If I stutter and don’t present my work well everyone will laugh at me and I’ll crumble. I’ll never get over it!”
Before the social event: “There will be people I don’t know at the wedding. I hope people don’t come up to me and ask me lots of questions.”
During the social event: “People will be able to see me blushing. They must think I’m so silly. I feel so embarrassed, I just want to leave.”
After the social event: “I was so nervous, I must have come across as really silly. I wonder what people thought of me?”
Our behaviours can help maintain the cycle of social anxiety. Avoidance plays a vital role in every type of anxiety disorder, especially social anxiety. When the stress of a social situation gets too much, we choose to avoid it. We might make an excuse not to go, cancel last minute, or find ways to be invisible during social situations. This gives us relief in the short term. But it also robs us of the chance to build confidence by facing social situations.
Avoidance can also be subtler. It may take the form of something called "safety behaviours." Using alcohol to boost your confidence, leaving early, and only speaking when spoken to are common safety behaviours. Other common safety behaviours include:
Arriving early to avoid being the center of attention.
Wearing your hood up or having sunglasses on to avoid eye contact.
Avoiding all social situations.
Always needing to be close to someone who can do most of the talking.
Making excuses to leave social situations early.
When feeling threatened or stressed, our natural fight-or-flight response kicks in. This causes our bodies to produce adrenaline. As social situations aren’t typically situations where we can use this stored adrenaline, our bodies can become overwhelmed. This reaction produces uncomfortable symptoms such as palpitations, sweating, dizziness, physical tension, shaking, and shortness of breath.
Just the thought of someone noticing these symptoms can cause more anxiety. People with social anxiety often monitor these symptoms closely. This can increase anxiety levels further.
For example, someone's first day at work might make them feel socially anxious. This causes an increase in temperature and makes them sweat. Now this person is worried about sweat patches and what others might think. That causes even more sweating and increases anxiety.
Common physical symptoms experienced when feeling socially anxious include:
Knots or butterflies in the stomach
Feeling weak in the legs (jelly legs)
Shortness of breath
Feeling as though you need to urinate
The more anxious we feel, the more we can experience these types of physical symptoms. That brings unintended consequences that can make us feel even more self-conscious, such as sweating, blushing, and shaking.
What can be reassuring to realize is that each of these uncomfortable physical symptoms we experience has a purpose. They are trying to get us ready for action. This is our body's natural protection system. It is called the “fight-or-flight response.”
Emotions are extremely powerful. They influence our thinking, behaviour, and physical feelings. The thought of being criticized can bring strong emotions such as shame and embarrassment.
These emotions might remind us of a traumatic period in our lives. They can make us feel very uncomfortable and sometimes quite vulnerable. Typical emotions experienced before, during, and after episodes of social anxiety include:
What can be done?
So, our thoughts, behaviours, emotions, and physical feelings all play a role in social anxiety. They all have a close relationship with each other and can work as a team to make you feel anxious. Togetherall’s social anxiety course will help you learn techniques to move from this vicious circle to a more virtuous one.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) looks to break this cycle by helping you to restructure your thoughts and change your behaviour. Counselling can also help people build up resilience and work through trauma. Techniques like mindfulness can also help, helping you to enter the "here and now." You can also use grounding techniques to help manage emotional distress.
Person A vs Person B
Person A's approach may bring some short-term relief, but situations tend to become more difficult with little to no long-term pay-off. Person B's approach includes some short-term discomfort. However, this is something that gets easier with practice and offers a high level of reward.
You will notice that Person A is acting on instinct. In contrast, Person B, despite still feeling anxious, has used strategies and techniques to ease their social anxiety and make it more manageable.
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