Social anxiety affects an estimated 15 million Americans, but it tends to play out in different ways for different people: Some of us freak out and assume we’ll have nothing interesting to say in a group setting. Others worry so intensely that people are noticing signs of our anxiety (flushed skin, sweating), we become even more self-conscious and anxious.
According to psychologist David Moscovitch, those are just two of the four types of social anxiety people tend to suffer from. Pinpointing how your anxiety tends to play out can make a world of difference in treating it.
“It’s very helpful to identify what scares you about that thing you’re avoiding. It’s often not the situation in and of itself that people fear, but rather what they believe will happen in that situation,” said Moscovitch, who works at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
“There’s usually an imagined catastrophe people believe will ensue if they face the dreaded situation,” he told INB. “It’s important for them to understand, as an initial step, what they imagine that catastrophe is.”
From his research, Moscovitch has identified four expressions ― or types ― of social anxiety:
Anxiety over our social skills and behaviors;
Anxiety over our anxiety;
Anxiety over our physical appearance;
Anxiety over our character.
Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen takes his work a step farther in her new book, How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.
Hendriksen theorizes that the four types of anxiety have one thing in common: the anxiety is all based around our fear that our “fatal flaw” ― something off about our physical appearance, for instance, or our awkward social skills ― will be revealed and make us look stupid.
“While the ‘fatal flaw’ feels so real, it’s usually actually nonexistent, barely noticeable, or won’t result in the harsh judgment we anticipate,” she said. “Knowing what type of social anxiety you have is the first step in refuting your brain’s insistence that you are not enough.”
So how do you convince yourself that you are, indeed, enough ― and get a hold on your social anxiety? Below, experts unpack the four types of social anxiety and offer actionable solutions.
1. Anxiety over our social skills and behavior
If you clam up at the mere suggestion of “breaking out into small groups for discussion” or avoid small talk like the plague, your social anxiety is probably centered around your social skills (or lack thereof, as you see it.)
“Maybe you’re afraid of not knowing how to have a conversation and worry that if you talk with other people, they’ll find you awkward and unappealing,” Moscovitch said. “You imagine that people will overtly ridicule you or cut the conversation short and walk away with a look of distaste on their faces.”
While your normal coping mechanism may be to script out everything you’ll say in advance ― or to find a corner at a party to thumb through your phone the rest of the night ― Moscovitch suggests leaning into the situation. Go talk to people, even if you have to treat it like a fun (or fun-ish) social experiment.
“Have as many one-on-one conversations as you can. Practice keeping your attention focused on the task ― listening to the other person and responding unscripted with whatever comes to mind while maintaining eye contact,” he said. “While you’re at it, gather evidence to support or refute the conclusion that people find you awkward and unappealing.”
That said, don’t self-sabotage: Just because you feel anxious or awkward while talking doesn’t mean you’re being perceived that way. The fact is, you’ll only really know how people are perceiving you by reading their faces and body language. Was there a disgusted look on their face the whole time you talked or did they seem genuinely interested in what you had to say? Did they make fun of you or were they surprisingly friendly?
As you experiment, keep this thought firmly in mind: If they were rude to you, in all likelihood, it probably had nothing to do with you.
“Perhaps the other person is a jerk or they were having a bad day,” Moscovitch said. “The more behavioral experiments you do like this, the more you realize that bad outcomes are the exception rather than the rule.”
2. Anxiety over anxiety
When you’re anxious about being anxious, you walk around feeling like there’s a giant spotlight beaming down on you, letting everyone you encounter know that you have anxiety and are going to make things awkward. That’s certainly how life coach Ed Barton felt during the height of his anxiety years ago.
“My anxiety over my anxiety was really bad,” he told INB. “My greatest enemies were the blood vessels in my face, which would dilate and surge with blood at the slightest thing: someone looking at me on the subway, ordering a coffee in Starbucks, an attractive female moving within 20 feet of me.”
The more Barton tried to get the physical effects under control, the deeper he’d blush and the sweatier he’d become.
“The more I wanted to be unnoticed and melt into the background, the more my face would burn red and literally stream with sweat, thus acting as a kind of human beacon that drew all attention to me and further increased the burning redness and sweating,” he said. “Social anxiety really is the negative feedback loop that just keeps on giving.”
How do you stop that loop? Again, Moscovitch says to stay put and lean into the awkward situation. People are usually so in their head ― we all have some degree of spotlight syndrome ― they’re probably not noticing your sweat or redness.
“If you stay in the situation and engage in the social interaction, almost everyone around you forgives those little signs of nervousness that you worry about,” he said. “Those signs will likely start to diminish anyways the more you practice.”
3. Anxiety over our physical appearance
When your social anxiety is focused on your physical appearance, the mirror is not your friend: You look into it and see that you have a huge zit that no amount of concealer could cover, your hair is flat and greasy even with dry shampoo, and you really should have lost five pounds before debuting that new outfit.
Stop with the negative self-talk. Unless they invent FaceTune for real life, we all have our flaws, and you’re no different. And interestingly enough, your attempts to cover up your flaws may draw more attention to them than you realize, Hendriksen said.
“The cruel paradox of social anxiety is that the things we do to conceal our anxiety ― overdoing it on the makeup, wearing our hair over our face, wearing long sleeves in the middle of summer― often look weirder than whatever ‘defect’ we’re trying to conceal,” she said.
Don’t let your social anxiety cut into spending quality time with people you care about. The next time your friends ask you out for drinks midweek, go ― even if your favorite slimming black dress is in the washer and you have to wear something else.
“When we turn away from people, hover on the edge of groups, or don’t show up because we’re ashamed of our appearance, our behavior inadvertently sends the message that we don’t want to engage, when really we’re just anxious,” Hendriksen said.
4. Anxiety over our character
When your anxiety is character-focused, you feel like you’re the least interesting person in the room, always. You think your conversation is dry and boring, you’re certain no one cares to hear about your humdrum job, and even if they did, you’re pretty sure you’d come across as incompetent and stupid explaining what you do.
Cut yourself a break: Chances are, your self-loathing internal monologue is more than a little warped, said Hendriksen.
“Ask yourself this: Do you expect people you meet to be witty, interesting, fun, on top of everything, confident, or fabulous 100 percent of the time? Of course not. Same goes for you,” she said. “The truth is, trying to be flawless comes off as intimidating and superhuman. Your foibles and imperfections are endearing, welcoming, and approachable. Wear them with pride.”