There’s a chance you had suffered from an anxiety attack, and you didn’t even know it. Social anxiety disorder – which affects 10% of the population in Singapore – brings with it a whole host of negative effects, including physical ones like hyperventilation and nausea. It’s important to recognise the symptoms and learn ways to keep your anxiety under control before it worsens.
Confession: Unlike Denise, I cannot bring myself to eat alone in public. In fact, whenever I’m faced with a choice between eating alone in public and not eating at all, I’d opt for the latter.
Oh, it gets worse. When it comes to public transport, the thought of being with strangers on a crowded train would sometimes put me off taking the train altogether, leaving me with no choice but to hail for a cab. I had chalked it up to sheer laziness, never giving much thought to the way I react in such situations – until the day I was suddenly seized with a blinding fear that the crowd was closing in on me (I’m not claustrophobic), and I started breaking out in cold sweat. I had to alight at the next station so I could breathe normally again.
I swear I’m not neurotic, just not a big fan of social situations. But after sharing my case with Celestine Chua, life coach at Personal Excellence, and hearing what she’s got to say, I probably should be worried. “It sounds like your social anxiety is more than just ‘mild’ as it has reached the point of being overwhelming – where you had to purposely exit/avoid public situations to get it under control,” she says. “It’ll be good to consult a medical expert in this field and get a professional diagnosis.”
Well, the good news is, that one-time incident happened years ago, and I’m happy to report I feel 100-percent comfortable taking the bus. I wish I could live a normal life, though, and have no qualms eating alone in public without feeling terribly self-conscious. According to Chua, it’s not impossible. Below, she shares her insights as a life coach on social anxiety.
*Important: Chua’s answers should not constitute or be used to substitute clinical advice. If you believe you have social anxiety, please consult a doctor for proper diagnosis and help.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety refers to great fear in social situations, resulting in considerable distress. Oftentimes, this fear can overwhelm and debilitate a person, even affecting his/her ability to function in daily life. With mild social anxiety, the person feels fear in social situations as well, but is able to manage it within the situation.
What are some symptoms of mild social anxiety?
- Fear of being with other people
- Self-consciousness when in front of others, like fear of embarrassing yourself or humiliating yourself
- Fear of judgement by others
- Finding it hard to make connections with others
- Fear translating into physical signs such as sweaty palms and blushing in front of others
- Worry of being in places or events that involve other people
Whether your social anxiety is mild, moderate, or chronic, there is an underlying pattern of having a fear of other people, high level of self-consciousness, and fear of judgement. The difference is that mild social anxiety can be easily managed without it overwhelming you. On the other hand, moderate and chronic social anxiety can prevent you from functioning in normal life.
Regardless, mild social anxiety can easily spiral into moderate and even chronic anxiety over time if not properly addressed. It’s important to understand where your anxiety is coming from and to address it accordingly.
How is mild social anxiety different from general shyness?
General shyness is usually temporary. One may feel shy when around strangers, but easily breaks out of this shell after having some interaction with these people. The person does not need to expend much effort to push past the initial fear.
With social anxiety, the person may have the intention to know other people and make connections, but is blocked from doing so due to this condition. Social anxiety is more persistent and can remain there even after multiple interactions with others. This anxiety can also manifest into physical symptoms like sweating, severe sweaty palms, trembling, and deep blush. In severe cases, it may lead to heart palpitations or chest pain.
What causes mild social anxiety?
Negative experiences can be a cause. Someone who has experienced bullying, rejection, or teasing as a child may be more prone to feeling social anxiety than others. Someone who has consistently been placed in situations where he/she is subjected to judgement and scrutiny can also be more prone to such anxiety.
Another possible cause is low self-esteem. If the person already has a negative judgement of him/herself, then he/she is likely to be more self-conscious around other people. This self-consciousness easily translates into anxiety and fear around others.
At what stage does it become severe (enough to seek professional help)?
If your anxiety has reached the point where it is not manageable by yourself, you should seek professional help. One indicator is when it is disrupting your ability to lead a normal life. For students, it may be that your anxiety is affecting you from making friends, participating in class, performing in your studies, and participating in school studies. For adults, it may be that your anxiety affects your work performance, prevents you from having a healthy social life, and even affects you from/in dating.
Another indicator is if it’s starting to produce negative physical effects, such as chest pain, hyperventilation, nausea, and hot flashes. At this stage, the anxiety is probably quite severe.
What can I do the next time I feel the onset of an anxiety attack?
Practice deep breathing. Focus on your breath and on inhaling deeply for about three seconds, holding the breath for about two seconds, then exhaling deeply for another three. Repeat this until your breath regulates. Daily meditation in your own time, in the morning or before you sleep at night, is helpful to prevent such attacks.
Isolate yourself from the cause of the anxiety. If you are in a crowd and you feel it beginning to overwhelm you, isolate yourself from them. If you are with a group of people, you can excuse yourself quickly by saying you need to go to the washroom. By deviating from the source of anxiety, you can take the time to calm yourself down first.
Divert your attention with an activity. Try this if step #2 is not viable in your situation (e.g., you are stuck on a train that’s broken down). Engage in a task that will keep you busy and take your attention away from the source of anxiety. It can be listening to a playlist of your favourite music, journaling your thoughts, playing your favourite game on your mobile, or watching a video.
Acknowledge your anxiety. Acknowledge your anxiety and allow it to just be. It is important to do this as ignoring your feelings may worsen the situation – your anxiety may build up and turn into an actual attack.
Ask yourself, “Why am I feeling anxious?” Listen to the responses. Alternatively, you can also write the answers down. Not only does understanding your anxiety put you in a place of empowerment, talking or writing out the answers serves as a form of release too. Chances are, your anxiety is due to mental fear and not because of physical danger. Writing these thoughts down will help you gain awareness of them.
Replace with positive thoughts. After identifying why you are feeling socially anxious, replace these with positive thoughts. For example, rather than think that everyone is staring at you, recognise that perhaps everyone is busy with their activities. Or, instead of assuming that people are thinking poorly of you, recognise that everyone has their own opinions – and people’s opinions should not affect you if you don’t allow them to.
Is social anxiety common in Singapore? And is it more prevalent among women than men?
According to HealthXchange, about 10 per cent of the population in Singapore suffer from anxiety and depressive disorders. With regards to gender susceptibility, it appears that women tend to be more likely to suffer from social anxiety (along with other phobias). According to Harvard Health Publications, women are twice as likely to suffer from panic disorder or social phobia compared to men, and they are three times as likely to have agoraphobia (fear of being in public places).
That said, having worked with coachees of different nationalities, genders, and ages, I would say social anxiety – mild or moderate – is a problem that can happen to and affect anyone. If you feel that you are suffering from mild social anxiety, you don’t have to let it affect your life. At the end of the day, as long as you understand the root cause of your social anxiety and take the right steps to address it, you can have a vibrant and healthy social life just like anyone else.
About The Author: A founder of Material World, Tan Lili has previously worked in magazines The Singapore Women’s Weekly and Cosmopolitan Singapore, as well as herworld.com (now herworldplus.com, the online counterpart of Her World). She is now a freelance writer who works on this website full-time. Lili hopes to travel the world, work with wild animals, and discover more awesome Twilight fan-fiction. Follow her on Twitter @TanLiliTweets.
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