Social Anxiety is a disorder that impacts more than 20 million people.
While many people with social anxiety are also introverts, it is not exactly the same thing. An introvert might be able to interact socially with no fears or anxiety; they simply need enough personal time to recharge after doing so. With social anxiety disorder, sufferers have a deep-seated fear that they will make embarrassing mistakes in social situations and that the people they are with are constantly judging them. The fear that the people that they are interacting with don’t really want them around is also quite common.
At first reading, it may seem as if these are normal things that everybody goes through. After all, doesn’t everybody fear saying the wrong thing in a group, or wonder if they are truly well-liked by their circle of friends? The difference is that with social anxiety disorder, the symptoms are so severe that some people are unable to interact socially at all. For others, social anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as headache, nausea, or trembling. The people who can manage social interaction must build up a lot of mental and emotional strength in order to do so.
If you have a friend or family member with social anxiety, it is important to know how to communicate with them. Even if you don’t know somebody with this disorder, chances are you will have the opportunity to interact with a person with social anxiety at a party or other social situation. Knowing the right things to say and do can really help a person suffering from social anxiety to enjoy social experiences as much as possible.
Don’t Criticize or Compliment Publicly.
It is absolute torture for a person with SAD to be put on the spot. This is true regardless of whether the intent is positive or not. If you have a compliment, issue it personally, in a sincere, but low key manner. If you disagree with something that a person with SAD has said or done, consider addressing it gently, at a later time. That way they won’t associate the criticism with the social occasion.
Find a Common Interest.
It is much easier for a person with SAD to engage if the topic is something they enjoy and are familiar with. If you can find a subject that is interesting to you and them, you can use that to get a nice conversation going.
Embrace the Benefits of Spending Time Alone.
One of the things that make life difficult for a person with social anxiety is the fact that we live in such a loud world. Everybody seemingly has the need to constantly fill the silence with words. This can be particularly difficult for people with social anxiety who are also sensitive to lots of noise and commotion. Learn the benefits of being still and alone, and you can become a comforting presence to people with social anxiety.
Suggest Texting or Messaging.
For some SAD sufferers talking produces more symptoms than other forms of communication. If that seems to be the case, ask them if they would rather text. If you feel weird doing that, try framing it as a way to communicate in a space with other people without adding to all of the noise. You’ll be surprised at how much more open and communicative a person with SAD can be if they are able to use written communication.
Ask Open-Ended Questions.
Asking questions is a great way to get a person with SAD to open up. It’s also a great way to get to know them. The key, however, is to ask them open ended questions. This gives them the chance to speak about themselves and their interests in a way that is comfortable for them. If you ask them questions that can be answered with one or two words, they might feel as if they are being put on the spot or interrogated. For example, “Are you enjoying yourself at the party?”, can be answered with a yes or no. On the other hand, “How do you know the host?” Is a bit more open ended and gives them the opportunity to respond in detail.
Give Them Ample Time to Respond.
It takes a person with SAD a bit longer to formulate a response. Because of this, many people make the mistake of assuming that they have nothing to say. So, the person without SAD jumps in with their next thought, or another person joins the conversation. This makes the person with social anxiety feel out of place, depressed, and awkward. If you are interacting with someone with SAD wait a few moments so that they can get their thoughts together.
Remember that they are anxious about saying something that will be judged as stupid or boring. If somebody else jumps in and speaks, turn the conversation back to the person with social anxiety, and ask them if they were about to say something. This brings them back into the conversation.
Connect With Them After Engaging With Them The First Time.
It’s fairly common for people with social anxiety to feel worse after a social occasion. This is when they begin replaying everything in their minds and dreading everything they said or did. For example:
- Why did I spend so much time talking about that? People must think I’m so annoying.
- I bet the people who talked to me were just being nice.
- I know I looked like an awkward idiot.
- No one from the party will want to hang out with me again.
- I shouldn’t have worn those shoes. They were totally out of place.
Rather than waiting for the next social occasion, follow up with them with an email or text message. Let them know that you enjoyed spending time with them. Ask them to go out for lunch, and then follow through on that. If you use social media, ask them if you can friend them, and then hit them up there.
If they are active, like and share their posts. This will build confidence in them and let them know that you are interested in them genuinely, not just as a ‘charity case’. Of course, you should only do these things if you truly are interested in pursuing a friendship.
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