The Three Stages of Social Anxiety (& How to Overcome Each Stage)

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Social anxiety manifests in three stages: anticipatory, exposure, and post-event processing. Each stage presents unique challenges that can make you want to avoid social situations altogether. However, by learning specific strategies for each stage—such as visualizing positive interactions beforehand, staying focused on the present during the event, and journaling positive experiences afterward—you can manage your anxiety more effectively and approach social events with greater confidence. Understanding these stages and implementing tailored coping mechanisms can significantly improve your ability to handle social anxiety.

Everybody experiences anxiety from time to time. It’s felt in the form of fear, dread, and uneasiness, which stems when something triggers you, like a stressful situation, traumatic event, or an upcoming occasion such as job interviews, exams, or public speech.

Anxiety becomes a disorder when symptoms are excessive and start to interrupt your daily life. But you have to remember that not everyone experiences anxiety the same way.

What is social anxiety disorder (SAD)?

A young woman looks noticeably anxious as she's sitting alone at home

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a type of anxiety disorder that causes you to fear or worry too much about being in a social situation, which results in your avoiding them at all costs.

Most people may confuse social anxiety with shyness. Both are two different things.

Shyness may portray some symptoms of social anxiety, but it often eases with familiarity and exposure over time.

You may feel shy when you don’t know what to do or how to act in a social situation.

It doesn’t cause intense physical or anxiety symptoms that make you want to avoid social events in your life or prevent you from doing things you love that involve social activities.

What are the causes and risk factors of social anxiety?

One way to grasp why and how anxiety affects you or your loved one is by understanding its causes and risk factors. Learning about the causes is also vital in addressing the disorder.

Below are the causes and risk factors of social anxiety:

  • Genetics
  • Brain chemistry
  • Stressful or traumatic life event
  • Parenting styles
  • Low self-esteem
  • Medical conditions
  • Temperament
  • Major life changes
  • Alcohol and substance use

The 3 stages of social anxiety

Here, you’ll learn more about the three stages of social anxiety. Each stage describes specific signs or symptoms a person would feel when experiencing social anxiety.

1. The anticipatory stage

You might get a gist of what this stage is. Yes, it’s anticipating anxiety before the actual social event or situation.

It could be days, weeks, or even months ahead of the social event.

During this phase, you might experience the following:

  1. Negative thoughts about the upcoming event will flood your mind, like anticipating a negative outcome, having self-doubts, and worrying about saying something embarrassing or being judged negatively.
  2. You may notice your anxiety starting to kick in, as well as other emotions like dread, fear, and nervousness.
  3. You will experience physical symptoms like increased heart rate, sweating, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, headaches, and nausea.
  4. Because of your anticipated anxiety, you will feel a strong urge to avoid the upcoming situation. You will try to make excuses or cancel your plans.

2. The situational exposure stage

A man looks anxious as he's trying to be comfortable in a social environment

The second stage occurs during the actual social event you’ve been anticipating.

Your anxiety usually intensifies during this stage, and you might experience the following:

  1. You will start to feel awkward, self-conscious, and detached in the present moment as you try to be overly focused on what you’re feeling inside and hypervigilant about perceived threats in your surroundings.
  2. Your physical symptoms from the anticipatory phase may seem to worsen. You will notice yourself trembling and experiencing difficulty in speaking or making eye contact. In worst-case scenarios, you may have panic attacks.
  3. You will lose your focus and feel like your mind is going blank.
  4. You will engage in safety behaviors like avoiding eye contact or staying silent as your way of managing your anxiety symptoms.

3. The post-event processing phase

The last stage occurs after the social situation is over. During this phase, you will notice yourself dwelling on the previous social situation and experience the following:

  1. You will constantly replay the event in your mind, believing that other people are negatively judging you.
  2. You will overly analyze yourself, ruminating and criticizing your behavior or performance and perceived mistakes, resulting in shame and embarrassment.
  3. Your fear of rejection and negative judgment intensifies, increasing your anxiety for future events.

What can you do to ease social anxiety?

A young woman is thinking

1. Before the social event:

During the anticipatory stage, your fear and worries slowly start to kick in and, eventually, intensify as you get closer to the anticipated social event. No matter how ahead of time you are, you may practice the following steps below to manage anxiety during this stage:

Try mindfulness and relaxation techniques

Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing exercises, and progressive muscle relaxation will help keep you grounded in the present moment. These techniques will also reduce your worries about the future. If you’re new to these exercises, you may follow videos on YouTube or download podcasts on Spotify.

Visualize positive interactions

Before D-day, try to spend a few minutes daily visualizing a successful social interaction. Imagine yourself being calm, confident, and enjoying the company of others.

Challenge negative thoughts

When negative self-talk starts to kick in, ask yourself and identify if these thoughts are realistic or helpful.

Prepare for the event

If you’re worried about a specific event, try to research or learn more about the event and the people you’re meeting. Rehearse conversations or actions. Familiarity can reduce anxiety.

2. During the event:

The second stage can be quite challenging as your anxiety during the anticipatory stage may worsen.

However, these are the following steps that you can follow to manage your anxiety during the event:

Shift your focus on the present moment

When anxious thoughts start to circle your mind, engage your senses and shift back your attention to what is happening around you.

Listen to what the host is trying to say in front, pay attention to the decorations or the theme of the party, or find something you love about the details or even the food. You can even try to ask questions or actively listen to others.

Use breathing and relaxation techniques

Practice what you have learned about relaxation techniques during the anticipatory stage when physical symptoms start to kick into your system. It will help calm down your body and release your worries or tension.

Try to comfort yourself

You can start by reassuring yourself with positive affirmations like telling yourself in your mind or even loudly with statements like “I can handle this situation” or “My anxiety does not define me.”

Be kinder to yourself and accept that you won’t feel perfectly okay with the situation but everyone experiences anxiety sometimes.

3. After the event:

When you have social anxiety disorder, you’ll most likely to dwell on negative interaction or perceived mistakes during the social event.

To manage and prevent doing this, you may practice the following:

Journal your experiences

Write about your experiences post-event. Focus on the positive aspects and identify what you can improve for future situations. It can help shift your focus from dwelling on perceived mistakes or negative interactions.

Challenge negative thoughts or self-talk

Challenge yourself to identify objective facts about the interaction instead of subjective feelings. Ask, “What evidence do I have for and against my negative thoughts?”

Seek support

If comfortable, seek feedback from a trusted person who was present. Use this as a learning opportunity rather than a critique of your social skills. You can also talk about your experiences and feelings about the social event.

How can you treat social anxiety?

Treating social anxiety may take a long time. It requires a lot of patience on your end and may involve medical and professional help.

Below are treatments options you may consider for your social anxiety disorder

1. Psychotherapy

Your doctor may refer you to a therapist that would introduce you to the most common and the gold standard for treating SAD which, is the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT helps you identify and challenge your negative thoughts and behavior patterns and also guides you in developing coping skills to manage them.

Another theraphy treatment options is called exposure therapy that will help you learn to manage your fear in social situations by gradually exposing you to them.

2. Accepting your social anxiety

You need to slowly accept your social anxiety. It lets you build more self-awareness to better manage your symptoms. Acceptance also reduces the weight and pressure off yourself and allows you to you create more focused approach towards therapy and treatment.

3. Medications

Antidepressant and beta-blockers can help manage your anxiety and reduce physical symptoms when faced with social situations. Your doctor may recommend taking medications along with therapy for optimal results.

4. Alternative treatments

Aside from therapy and medications, there are ways you can manage social anxiety at home. Below are the following:

  • Practice relaxation strategies like breathing techniques, meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation exercises.
  • Start learning and training your practical communication and social interaction skills to boost your confidence in public speaking and lessen your anxiety during exposure to social events.
  • Join support groups or surround yourself with people who can truly understand you, and you can also learn from their own experiences.

FAQs

1. How does the anticipatory stage of social anxiety manifest in daily life?

The anticipatory stage occurs before the social events happen. It can cause intense worry and fear that can impact your daily life. During this stage, you will try to avoid getting out of any social situations that trigger your anxiety by canceling plans or making excuses.

As a result, you will find yourself isolated from social interactions, leading to loneliness or depression.

Moreover, you would delay or postpone any tasks leading up to the social event, reinforcing more anxiety and preventing you from preparing.

2. How can someone seek help if they recognize these stages in themselves?

Recognizing the stages of social anxiety in yourself is a crucial first step towards seeking help and addressing the disorder. Here are some ways you can seek help:

– Share your experiences with a trusted friend or a family member who can provide emotional support and may encourage you to seek professional help.
– Visit your primary healthcare provider so that they can examine you further and refer you to a mental health professional.
– Seek help from a therapist to develop coping skills and strategies for managing anxiety symptoms.
– Learn more about social anxiety by researching or utilizing online resources, including strategies and support groups.

References

  • https://www.counselling-directory.org.uk/memberarticles/the-3-stages-of-shyness-and-social-anxiety
  • https://www.psychologytools.com/resource/stages-of-social-anxiety/
  • https://allwithinthemind.co.uk/the-3-stages-of-shyness-and-social-anxiety/
  • https://infocenter.nimh.nih.gov/sites/default/files/2022-02/social-anxiety-disorder-more-than-just-shyness.pdf
  • https://mcpress.mayoclinic.org/mental-health/social-anxiety-and-effects-on-women/
  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/social-anxiety-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20353561
  • https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder
  • https://jedfoundation.org/resource/understanding-anxiety-disorders/
  • https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/about-anxiety/
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/progressive-muscle-relaxation

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Reana Jean Cuevas
Mabuhay! I'm Reana Jean Cuevas. A healthy body means living well with no worries-just happiness and more life adventures. Taking care of my body and well-being is an investment for my career and future. I was a volunteer at the Philippine Red Cross. I joined the training to become a first-aider and be able to provide other health and safety services in my community. I love discussing anything but mainly first-aid, home remedies, and women's health.

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