Think you know all there is to know about social anxiety symptoms? Well today I’m challenging you to think again, my friends! The reality is that many behaviors people without social anxiety are quick to write off as a person being indifferent, aloof, or even mean, could really just be symptoms of social anxiety.
This holds true for kids as well as adults, so the next time you’re out there in the world and see your child or spouse or friend (or um, yourself) exhibiting any of these behaviors, you don’t need to diagnose them (in fact, I recommend you don’t!), but perhaps it’s worth asking yourself whether the purpose of their behavior isn’t to be mean, but rather a manifestation of the discomfort they (or you) are feeling in a certain social setting.
A quick note: I challenge you to look at this list and see if and how any of these social anxiety symptoms may apply to you. Not so you can diagnose yourself (again, that’s a no-no!) but more so you can check in with yourself and see if you may be experiencing social anxiety – typically, when you get to the root of a problem, even one you may not have known existed, you are actually able to cope with it effectively and it won’t get the best of you.
I experienced this one when I went on my first ever self-care retreat. Honestly, it was the first time I had ever been in a group therapy type situation where I was a participant, and not the leader. After many years working at a rehab hospital, I had hundreds of hours of group experience under my belt; as such, I entered the group pretty sure I’d know what to expect. Once the group started, I found my usually extroverted self sitting stone still like a statue and not participating unless called upon. If you would have asked me in that moment if I felt socially awkward, I would have laughed. Who, me?! Not a chance! Even as a kid, I rarely shied away from a chance to be in the spotlight. My affinity for drama even earned me a very appropriate nickname when I was little.
Ironically, my mom was on the retreat with me and just so happened to be sitting next to me. “What’s wrong with you?” she whispered. “You’re hardly talking at all! This is a self-care retreat, this is your thing!”
At first, I denied that I was acting any differently than usual. A mom can always see through our BS though, right? 😉
After the first group, we were sitting on her bed discussing the conversation and she was like, “I have literally never seen you act like that…it’s like you were…SHY.”
I had to laugh. It was probably the only time I’d ever been accused of being shy. But she was right.
It wasn’t long after that that I admitted it felt SUPER awkward for me to be participating in the group and not leading it. I was experiencing social anxiety symptom #1.
So the next time you’re wondering why the cat got your tongue, or why your spouse hasn’t strung two words together at your work party, it just may be that social anxiety is the culprit. Even if you’re a self-professed extrovert! Just check in with yourself (or the person in question) and see if you can name what it is you’re really feeling.
Sometimes, social anxiety can cause a person to swing to the opposite end of the conversational spectrum. They might start talking a lot about the project they’re heading up at work or a book they’ve recently read. You might even think they sound a bit prideful as they go on and on about said topic. But the fact is, they could just be feeling uneasy in the social setting, or they’re self-conscious about not talking enough so they’re talking about the one thing they feel truly confident about. A LOT.
Afterwards, you may be tempted to berate yourself (if it was you doing the talking) or joke about it with your significant other, but that’s really not helpful. Instead, give yourself (or them) grace. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable in social settings every once in a while, especially if you don’t know many of the people you’re with. We’ve all been there, so just laugh it off and let it go.
If someone is feeling socially awkward, you may notice they start to agree with everything everyone says. It makes some degree of sense, right? They are trying to suss out what this place and these people are like, and they’re afraid (hence the anxiety) that they might do or say something to offend or upset someone. This is especially true for any people-pleasers out there. If you overhear your friend with a severe nut allergy saying how much they adore peanut butter M+M’s just after someone else has been raving about them…they’re likely not a pathological liar, simply just feeling uncomfortable or socially anxious. Again, the best course of action is just to let it be and give them grace…after all, there’s really no harm done. Unless, of course their new friend gifts them with a Costco size bag of peanut butter M+M’s in the near future…in which case, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.
This is what I was talking about when I said that socially anxious people might appear mean. I honestly think that most of the meanness in the world is a direct result of fear and anxiety, but that’s a post for another day.
If you or a loved one are suddenly the most sarcastic person in the room…it might be time to check yo’self before you wreck yo’self. A common strategy for people who are feeling social anxiety is to point out the flaws of others to make them feel better about themselves. It’s the same as it was in elementary school, only this time it’s not the class bully being mean to you – it’s you or a loved one acting out. Ouch.
You may be tempted to bite their head off if someone you care about starts being critical or harsh out of the blue, but take a moment to breathe and further assess the situation before you do that. Try to understand that this could be coming from a place of anxiety and just check in with them. Even asking “is everything ok?” or “You seem upset – is there anything I can do to help?” goes a long way in diffusing the situation and easing their social anxiety.
When someone is feeling socially anxious, they usually have a lot going on up in that brain of theirs. Their amygdala is probably in overdrive trying to find the nearest exit and their cortex is probably trying to talk them out of it and convince them they’re not going to perish at this here dinner party. All neuroscience aside, you may find yourself having to repeat yourself, well, repeatedly if the person in question can’t hold their focus because they’re feeling anxious. If you notice this, it’s another good opportunity to ask if there’s anything you can do to make the situation a little better for them. Try not to get frustrated with them for not listening to you – they’re doing the best they can.
This one is especially prevalent in kids, but can occur in adults also. Ever wonder why your kids act crazy the minute you have company over? They were doing just fine before your dinner guests arrived, but once they do, they’re bouncing off the walls. It could be that social anxiety is to blame. Whether it’s a child or an adult acting more hyper than usual, ask them if they’re feeling nervous about anything. Again, ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Usually, when you call out the behavior (not in front of anyone else, of course!), it will diminish.
While this symptom might not be as surprising as some of the others, it nevertheless deserves a mention. Sometimes, social anxiety becomes so overwhelming that the person suffering from it just decides not to go out at all. You may notice a friend canceling plans more often than not in a given period of time and wonder what the heck you did wrong. Chances are, nothing. Don’t be so quick to assume that your friend or loved one doesn’t want to be around you or doesn’t want to be your friend anymore. In fact, don’t assume anything at all. Just give them the time and space they need and don’t make it about you. And if you’re the one feeling anxious and not feeling like going out, that’s ok too. Allow yourself to cancel plans that no longer serve you or are just stressing you out too much. But if you find yourself canceling everything all the time, it’s best to check in with a therapist to make sure there isn’t a bigger problem underlying your desire to stay home.
Ok, my friends – that wraps up the list of social anxiety symptoms that you might be surprised by. Did I miss anything? Feel free to let me know! I love hearing from you! 🙂