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Social Anxiety: More than Shyness

Rachel Temple, Trainee Researcher

Rachel Temple, Trainee Researcher

Before Christmas, Radio presenter Iain Lee discussed his experiences of mental health difficulties on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here. In particular, he talked about how living with social anxiety affects his daily interactions, especially in groups of people. He admitted to struggling with small talk for example. People tend to misinterpret this as shyness, rudeness or even arrogance- a fairly divided reaction! Iain Lee’s experiences became a controversial topic in the jungle, as well as via social media. This had me thinking that maybe, unlike some other anxiety-related difficulties, social anxiety is considerably less well-understood.

Social anxiety is the chronic fear of being judged by others in social situations. It is believed that over 13% of people have social anxiety at some point in their lives.* Thoughts prior, during and after the social interaction are overwhelmingly negative and self-defeating, so much so that they are difficult – and almost impossible – to ignore. Imagine evaluating everything you say and everything that is said to you – exhausting! It can mean that various settings, from family parties, classrooms, meetings, or even bumping into an old friend in the street, are fear-provoking. The person may even avoid these situations altogether.

Social anxiety seems to have a higher lifetime prevalence than that of other anxiety conditions. This is probably because people do not tend to seek treatment until after 15-20 years of having symptoms. In fact, up to 50% of people living with social anxiety will never seek treatment.*

Why might this be? I was always told that my excessive blushing and self-consciousness was just a product of being shy, something that I would grow out of. When you are told that what you are experiencing is normal, and you do not know any different, you do not think that a problem exists. Why would you? Plenty of people are considered shy when they are younger and gradually, this tends to shift.

Social anxiety is like leading a double life: At home and around my friends, I am reasonably confident. Yet, during school, I dreaded the classes whereby I knew I would be asked questions, because this always made me go red. I based my A-Level options on whether or not there involved a presentation. At work, I found myself avoiding unfamiliar tasks, as well as speaking to management. I feared the anxiety would prevent me from ever progressing. It was affecting my development and holding me back. I was not growing out of it.

Research says that social anxiety can be present as early as age thirteen*, although in my experience, it was much younger. This highlights the need to work with young people in raising awareness. There are alternatives to feeling this way and support is available. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a widely accepted treatment that helps to challenge negative biases in thinking. My experience of CBT has been very positive. It has enabled me to confront some of my biggest fears surrounding social situations. However, I cannot help but wonder how much easier this may have been if I had access to this knowledge at an earlier age.

To learn about social anxiety, we need to listen to the voices that matter the most, people who have direct experience of the condition. At McPin, we strive to be inclusive in our work, which includes those experiencing social anxiety difficulties. Meaningful Involvement means more than merely inviting people along to meetings. Personally speaking, it can feel impossible to contribute to group meetings if that means talking in front of a room full of authoritative, well-established personalities. For others, merely sitting in a room is anxiety-provoking! This a real problem, because voices of those individuals are then lost, which in turn affects research quality.

In order to help combat this problem, McPin draws from a variety of methods. For example, we recognise that not everyone feels comfortable speaking in groups, so the option is encouraged to provide thoughts during breaks, after the event, or even by email. Groups may also be structured in a way that balances different types of personalities, ensuring that everyone has an input.  Essentially, the Chair of the meeting will reassure the group that all opinions matter. Minor details such as these can go a long way in promoting an equal voice.

There are ways that research can cater for all populations. There are ways that Patient and Public Involvement can be more appealing and less daunting. McPin is about spreading the importance of this message. I hope to help deliver this as I continue my journey as a Trainee Peer Researcher.

If you are struggling with issues of anxiety you can reach out to Anxiety UK or visit our sources of support section of the website.

*National Institute for Health and Care Excellence.