General Anxiety Disorder or Social Anxiety, What’s the Difference?
Written by: Melissa DaSilva LICSW
We all get anxious at some point in our lives, but many deal with symptoms of anxiety on a daily basis. There is a difference between being an anxious person and just getting anxious around others. There are ways to address these issues and make particular situations more tolerable. General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is when people become anxious about any issue, large or small. Some examples include fears of the health and wellbeing of self or others, life transitions, projects for work or school. People who struggle with social anxiety tend to become anxious when having to interact with others individually or in a group. This can include giving speeches to a room full of people or a romantic date with someone new. Both disorders can create psychological and physical stress. Someone with GAD can also have social anxiety. Individuals with either one of these disorders or both tend to have avoidance behavior; catastrophic thinking, increased heart rate, and shallow breathing when faced with an anxiety-provoking events or thoughts.
People can use several different tools when preparing for social situations if they tend to get anxious. One of the most important tools is to learn how to breathe properly. When your breath is shallow, your mind and body go into survival mode and prepare to freeze, run or fight. Slowing down the breath and breathing with the diaphragm and not in the upper chest triggers your mind to slow down, which tells the heart to slow. Once the heart slows down, the nausea, shaking, and sweating will decrease as well. So learning how to breathe before the event is vital.
Another tool that is useful is to create some scripted topics that you can go to when you need to interact with someone, one on one or in a group. One of the easiest topics to engage someone in talking about is themselves. Ask them what they think about the event you are at. You can ask them what they do for hobbies or work. You can ask them how they ended up at this event. Ask follow up questions so that the person knows that you are listening to them.
If the social event is being held at a place you have never been to, going there beforehand can be helpful. Practicing speeches with others before a public speaking engagement can help you to feel more at ease with discussing the topic. Doing these dry runs can make people feel more in control since they know what to expect.
Shift the focus
One of the ways I was able to overcome my social anxiety was by getting my dog certified as a therapy dog. This allowed him to go any place with me without any questions being asked. I found that taking the attention off me and putting it on my dog in social settings, made me feel at ease. It also gave me a great topic to talk to others about when they would come over to pet him.
Have a mantra. This is a phase you develop before the event for you to use if you become anxious during the social interaction. One of my favorites is, “you got this.” This needs to be practiced before the event so that it becomes very natural and easy to fall back on when you become anxious.
Lastly, get a good night sleep before the social event. The more sleep-deprived you are, the more difficult it can be to think clearly and be able to roll with the punches.
Coping with anxiety in the moment
There are ways to cope with social anxiety at the moment if the anxiety is feeling like it’s taking over. The first thing to do is step away and take some good breaths. Focus on the mantra you created beforehand. Remember, you will not die from this event despite what your body is telling you. Nobody has ever really died from embarrassment.
It’s not about you
Remind yourself that not everyone thinks about you as much as you do. It may sound mean, but when you think about it, it’s true. Nobody else reruns what you said, how you said it, what you wore, how you looked or what you did more than yourself. Give yourself a break and remember that what you see as huge issues will not even be seen by most. Why? Because they are thinking about themselves.
Fake it until you make it.
You may feel like you are going to vomit, pee in your pants, and pass out all at once, but you need to keep a smile on your face. Don’t let others see that you want to crawl in a hole. That throws them off and makes you feel uncomfortable. If you pretend to be enjoying yourself, your brain will be tricked into believing the same. Soon enough, you will find that you can keep all your fluids to yourself.
Find that awkward buddy
Find that other awkward person in the room and become best buds with them. You know you can spot your social awkward soul mate, you are kindred spirits. Rescue them while rescuing yourself. Ask them about themselves and let them know that you feel odd in these types of settings. Odds are, they will agree with you.
Activities to Practice
Some activities that may help people with social anxiety could include a regular meditation practice and daily exercise. Both of these activities are suitable for most cures in life. Everyone should do them even if they don’t have anxiety. It just makes you a better person to be around. There are other ways to deal with social anxiety. Trying activities that you are interested in as a hobby, but go to them with a buddy first. After a few sessions, try going solo.
Try to practice making small talk with people you don’t know on a regular basis. This can be done with a cashier while checking out in a store, with your barber or hairdresser and co-workers. You can smile and say good morning to people you pass on the streets. Go to a park with your dog or child. This will give you access to new people and a topic that every person at the park wants to discuss, their dog or child.
Practice going out to the movies or eating alone. This will feel scary and uncomfortable at first, but it gives you the opportunity to work through the fear and anxiety without others knowing. You remind yourself that nobody is looking at you in a theater, and if you bring a book to read while eating alone, people see you as confident and comfortable being with yourself. My favorite mantra for this would be, “who cares what they think of me. I will probably never see them again.”
Generally, anxiety and Social anxiety can be difficult to live with. Some find that the symptoms are more difficult to deal with at different times in their lives. Anxiety is manageable. Try to implement some of these tips and release yourself from the chains of anxiety.
If you feel like you would like help coping with anxiety contact one of our therapist at East Coast Mental Wellness. https://www.eastcoastmentalwellness.com/contact/