Your question: Can I have friends if I have social anxiety?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety is a universal experience. To a greater or lesser extent, we all feel anxiety at various times in our lives. Anxiety is necessary because it triggers an alert in our body, indicating that we must take action to avoid a potential threat. However, when anxiety becomes very intense and recurrent, it causes problems.

There are several types of anxiety, one of the most common is social anxiety, also known as social phobia. This problem is characterized by a persistent avoidance of social situations. People with social anxiety feel excessive embarrassment, fear and worry when they are in social situations, almost always because they are afraid of the judgment or assessment that others make of them (1).

If you are someone who is dealing with social anxiety, although you may feel alone and misunderstood, social anxiety is a fairly common problem. Approximately 12% of adults experience social anxiety (2), and although it is most common in young people between the ages of 18 and 29, it occurs indiscriminately regardless of age, gender or any other variable.

Social anxiety becomes a problem because it causes people to isolate themselves or avoid contact with others, leading to loneliness and self-criticism that leads to depression. Therefore, social anxiety should not be confused with normal shyness. While in shyness people are quiet and introverted, but can function without major problems in social spaces, people with social anxiety feel an overwhelming panic in situations such as making a school or work presentation.

Making friends with social anxiety can be a tough task. Social anxiety has been shown to be a predictor of future loneliness, because fear of negative evaluation by others in social situations leads people with social anxiety to isolate themselves, avoiding relationships with potential partners or friends (3).

If you have social anxiety, you are probably wondering if you can have friends. The answer is yes. Social anxiety does not have to define your life. It is an obstacle but not an impediment to social situations such as getting a job, friendships or a partner. Therefore, you need to learn strategies to cope with the symptoms of social anxiety, and to deal in a reassuring way with the process of making friends.

What does it feel like to have social anxiety?

Social anxiety occurs exclusively in social contexts, such as being in a crowd, on public transportation, when giving a presentation in class or at work, trying to socialize to make new friends, at a job interview, even simple everyday activities such as talking to a cashier at the grocery store.

The symptoms of social anxiety are both physical and emotional, and are generally characterized by the fear of being judged or criticized negatively by others. Other common symptoms are:

  • Muscle tension.
  • Tachycardia and shortness of breath.
  • Anticipation of social activities well in advance, e.g., fear of a college presentation weeks before it occurs.
  • Feeling of extreme embarrassment in social settings.
  • Avoidance of social activities for fear of feeling anxious.
  • Feeling of dizziness.
  • Avoidance of eye contact.
  • Feeling panic when a stranger asks you a question on the street.
  • Difficulty making friends and dating.

Why do making friends cause social anxiety?

There are few studies that prove the effect of social anxiety on the establishment of friendships. However, it is concluded that the most common problem in people with social anxiety is the process of maintaining friendships and the fear of intimacy (4).

Friendships depend on several factors to function in a healthy way. Some of these factors are trust, security, and intimacy. People with social anxiety may face severe difficulties in “opening up” emotionally with their friends, recounting personal experiences and talking about their problems, fears, and insecurities.

This does not mean that people with social anxiety are “bad friends,” but rather that they struggle with establishing trust with others because of the idea that they are constantly under judgment or criticism. If you have social anxiety I’m sure you understand what I’m talking about; it’s not that you don’t trust your friends or that they are bad people, but that something in your mind tells you that you should avoid talking about intimate things because others might judge you.

This is a concern that often overwhelms people with social anxiety: the idea that they are bad friends or bad partners because they don’t have the confidence to express themselves to others. I would like to tell you that this is not your fault, as it is part of social anxiety to constantly feel that others are criticizing you, even if you are in the presence of people you trust.

This problem makes it difficult for people with social anxiety to maintain long-term friendships, as people tend to reject or avoid those they feel they do not trust or feel secure enough to be friends with.

Therefore, it is important that you learn to modify your social skills, as friendships are considered a key factor in emotional well-being. As much as you may sometimes try to fool yourself by saying that “you don’t need friends”, the truth is that we all need people, outside of our family circle, to confide in and support us in difficult times.

How to develop friendships with social anxiety?

No problem has to define your life, and social anxiety is no exception. More than an impediment, your social anxiety is an obstacle that you must overcome in order to have a productive and satisfying life. There are strategies to consider so that you can work effectively with social anxiety.

It should be noted that social anxiety can only be diagnosed by a professional, and it is advisable to see a psychologist or psychiatrist if you feel that your social anxiety is consuming your life and worsening over time.

Social anxiety has been shown to be treatable with cognitive behavioral therapy. People learn strategies that improve their quality of life, and manage to cope with overwhelming social situations through questioning their irrational thoughts and socialization and communication techniques.

Breathing and relaxation

When anxiety symptoms occur, relaxation exercises are quite helpful. Close your eyes, inhale slowly for 3 seconds and exhale for another 3 seconds. Rest your hands on your abdomen and feel how the tension in your body progressively decreases. While you do this, repeat in your mind affirmation phrases, such as: “you can handle this situation, you have the strength to do it”. You can apply this exercise for 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Take the first step

It is common for people with social anxiety to have difficulty making friends because they wait for others to approach them. It will help to alleviate your anxiety symptoms and confront your fears if you take the first step in making friends. You can try it virtually first, by writing to people you like on social networks and initiating a general conversation or a conversation about a specific topic.

Then, you can approach groups of people with whom you share similar topics. In every city there are groups for movies, literature, sports, music and other topics of interest. By approaching these groups, introducing yourself and following the conversation slowly, you will be taking the first step in developing friendships.

Keep in touch with your friends

People with anxiety often find it difficult to maintain contact with their friends, which is perceived by others as disinterest. If you find it difficult to socialize in public spaces, you can add reminders on your phone to text your friends at a certain time of day, at least a couple of times a week. A simple “Hi, how have you been lately?” is enough.

Question your thoughts

Negative thoughts in social anxiety can ruin your life. Generally, when you are in places of socialization, thoughts like “no one wants me here”, “they sure are talking bad about me”, “I feel out of place, I should leave” come to you. It is hard work to understand that our thoughts are not facts, but this is reality.

Just because you think this way does not imply that it is the objective reality. Therefore, when these negative thoughts invade you, whether at work or in any other social space, you need to stop and question them. A functional and positive response to the above thoughts would be, “No one has said anything negative to me, I will try to fit into the space and try to start a conversation with someone.”

Develop your social skills

Something like initiating a conversation with a stranger can be a nightmare for many people with social anxiety. However, these are small steps you can take to cope with the symptoms of social anxiety and learn to control them. In a notebook you can write down a simulated conversation with a stranger or an acquaintance. It will help to look in the mirror and practice. Preferably, you can make the conversation about a topic of your interest, for example, a movie you recently saw or a nice restaurant you went to.

When you find yourself in a social setting, approach a person to start the conversation. If the person doesn’t know you, introduce yourself. Start talking about the topic you had in mind and practiced earlier. At the moment you may feel tense and overwhelmed, but by the end, regardless of how long the conversation lasts, you will feel that you have taken an important step in developing your social skills.

This is just one of several strategies you can apply in your day-to-day life to cope with the general pressure and fear you feel in social spaces, questioning that others may criticize you. Gradually, you can increase socialization, instead of talking to one stranger you will talk to three, and so on.

In my experience…

We all need someone to confide in to tell our problems and receive support. Friendships can be a lifeline, people who listen and help you unconditionally, and appreciate you for who you are. Therefore, it is necessary to work on getting and keeping lasting, healthy friendships, people with whom you can laugh and cry equally. Although this may feel impossible with social anxiety, it is an obstacle you must overcome with the tools and professional help you need. Having social anxiety does not impede making friends.

I believe you have the ability to improve and heal these feelings of discomfort you are experiencing now. The fact that you are seeking professional help through this medium proves it to me, and I applaud you for making that decision and being on track to improve your mental health and overall, your physical health

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