Social anxiety is different from — and much more than — simply being shy or introverted or having poor social skills. Even so, people who live with social anxiety often find the disorder trivialized or minimized by others, including some mental health professionals, according to Robin Miller, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a member of the American Counseling Association.
“Shyness doesn’t necessarily have a negative impact on someone’s life. That’s an important thing to remember from a clinical point of view,” explains Miller, who specializes in working with adults with anxiety disorders at an outpatient practice just outside of Milwaukee. “Many of my clients get a pat on the head from people and [comments such as], ‘You’re just shy. You have nothing to worry about.’ But you wouldn’t get that for [symptoms of] posttraumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues. You wouldn’t say there’s nothing to worry about.”
Most of all, clients with social anxiety need support and reassurance as they try to discontinue old patterns and behaviors that they have adopted to cope with the paralyzing fear that often accompanies the disorder, says Brad Imhoff, an LPC who was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder in 2012 as he was working on his doctorate.
One characteristic of social anxiety is a constant feeling of apprehension regarding social situations. It is difficult to express just how oppressive and pervasive that feeling can be, says Imhoff, an assistant professor of counseling at Liberty University who lives in central Ohio and teaches in the university’s online program. “You carry this feeling of ‘I just can’t do this’ all the time,” he says. “As human beings, we’re social. And apprehension in every one of [those social situations] can be overwhelming.”
Imhoff, a member of ACA, says he recognizes the irony of his career choice: a person with social anxiety who speaks regularly to rooms full of people, both as a counselor educator and as a frequent presenter at conferences, including giving a session on social anxiety at the ACA 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans.
Imhoff has learned to navigate the challenges of social anxiety since his diagnosis, but he acknowledges still feeling anxious before speaking engagements. “The question is, how do I manage it and not let it get in the way of life?” he says. “I will have to manage this, to some extent, for my entire life and not let it get to the extremes it has in the past.”
Navigating life through avoidance
Social anxiety is one of a number of related issues — including specific phobia, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and others — that fall under the anxiety heading in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Called social phobia in decades past, social anxiety disorder is characterized by persistent fear over social or performance-related situations, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, which cites diagnostic interview data to estimate that 12.1% of U.S. adults will experience social anxiety disorder during their lifetime. Among adolescents ages 13-18, the lifetime prevalence is 9.1%. For all ages, social anxiety disorder is more prevalent in females than in males.
Researchers have not singled out a specific cause for social anxiety disorder, pointing instead to a combination of biological and environmental factors as contributors. Genetics appears to play a large role in many cases, as can negative childhood experiences such as family conflict or being bullied, teased or rejected by peers. It is also believed that individuals who have an overactive amygdala may experience more anxiety in social situations.
According to the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, “Social anxiety disorder can affect people of any age. However, the disorder typically emerges during adolescence in teens with a history of social inhibition or shyness. The onset is usually accompanied by a stressful or humiliating experience, and the severity varies by individual. … There is a higher incidence of social anxiety disorder in individuals with first-degree relatives affected by other panic and anxiety disorders. However, there is no one gene that explains this biological trend. General findings indicate that personal experiences, social environment and biology all play a role in the development of the disorder.”
People often experience symptoms of social anxiety disorder to varying degrees across the life span, according to the center. Symptoms may lessen for stretches of time and then worsen during periods of change or stress, such as a job transition or when dealing with feelings of grief and loss.
What sets social anxiety apart from general anxiety is not only the social component but also an intense fear of judgment by others, explains Holly Scott, an LPC whose Dallas private practice is a regional clinic of the National Social Anxiety Center. People with social anxiety often harbor strong and pervasive feelings that others will notice their anxiety and judge them, which triggers avoidance behaviors, she says.
At the same time, there are nuances to the diagnosis, and social anxiety can look different in each client, Scott adds. For example, someone may be fine with public speaking and yet not be able to walk into a room in which they don’t know anyone.
“People think it’s not treatable,” Scott says. “Clients label it as ‘this is just the way I am, and I can’t change the way I am.’ It can be difficult to treat or to find a qualified practitioner, but it is treatable.”
Imhoff says he has read that on average, people go 15 years before seeking treatment for social anxiety. Counseling itself is a social interaction, he notes, and people with social anxiety may avoid treatment out of a fear of the close interaction or of being scrutinized by a practitioner.
Because people with social anxiety typically adopt avoidance as one of their coping mechanisms, and perhaps because of the way that social anxiety tends to get minimized or passed off as simply being introverted or shy, these clients often live life without seeking treatment until they reach a breaking point. As Imhoff points out, people can self-manage their social anxiety for an extended period of time by maintaining the same small circle of friends and following certain behavioral patterns such as always using the self-service checkout line at the grocery store.
Living with social anxiety is their reality, Imhoff explains, and they “forge ahead until something causes [them] to realize it’s more significant.” For Imhoff, that “something” was the impending scrutiny involved in defending his doctoral thesis.
“For social anxiety, it’s possible to navigate life with avoidance and survive for a long time. Then something comes up — a life change, such as entering the workforce — that causes them to need help,” he says. “A lot of these safety behaviors aren’t being done consciously. They are things we’ve done throughout our lives to find safety.”
Assessment and core beliefs
Avoidance behaviors are one of the biggest red flags that a client might be dealing with social anxiety, Miller says. These behaviors can extend to staying in situations in which the person is unhappy yet comfortable, such as a bad romantic relationship, a toxic friendship or a job that the person doesn’t enjoy or isn’t advancing in.
Other indicators include rumination and overthinking social experiences. This can include asking oneself over and over again, “What did that person think of me?” Miller explains, whether it’s an interaction with a neighbor while walking the dog or a yearly performance evaluation with one’s supervisor.
Counselors should be aware that social anxiety often co-occurs with other mental health issues such as depression and substance abuse (which often becomes a coping mechanism) that may need to be treated first or in tandem with the disorder, Miller adds. In addition, other issues such as grief may be complicating a client’s social anxiety. “They’re not always struggling with one thing. Make sure you’re working on what they’re struggling with the most,” Miller says.
Scott suggests asking clients at intake about how they deal with social situations and how often they go to gatherings or parties. Are they uncomfortable introducing themselves to new people, making a phone call or using the restroom in public places? If Scott hears symptoms that might indicate the presence of social anxiety, she uses a questionnaire (she recommends the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale, available at nationalsocialanxietycenter.com) to pinpoint the client’s fear level and to identify goals to focus on in therapy.
It can also be helpful to identify a client’s core beliefs and values and how those are affecting the person’s choices and behaviors, Imhoff says. People with social anxiety often carry a core belief that they’re inadequate or inferior, which spurs a fear of being judged, he explains. These clients frequently place weight and focus on situations that seemingly confirm their core belief and discount those that might disprove it. They might ruminate over a conversation with a colleague that didn’t go well, for example, without giving any consideration to all of the past conversations that did go well, Imhoff notes.
“They move through life paying very close attention to and taking to heart scenarios that confirm their core belief,” he says. “It’s important to help the client take off the blinders. Talk through ways they are competent, and get to the root of their concerns. Be aware of the multitude of their experiences and not just those they struggle with.”
To identify core beliefs, counselors can listen for themes in the way that clients talk about themselves, other people and the world. These themes can suggest deeply held beliefs to challenge or to explore further in therapy. Having clients work on thought journals can also be helpful in finding patterns, Imhoff says. He also suggests using a prediction log, in which clients name upcoming social scenarios that make them anxious and describe what they assume will happen. After the scenario occurs, clients can look back at their predictions with the counselor to talk through how accurate these foresights were.
After core beliefs and values have been identified, the counselor can work with clients to reframe their perspective around new core beliefs. For example, clients who place value on providing for their family could focus on that value to help them overcome their anxiety and discomfort over applying for a new job.
“Look for evidence that supports their new core belief,” Imhoff says. “If their belief is ‘I am capable,’ have them write down even the most minor piece of evidence [in a journal]. It makes it concrete and documented so they can refer back to it and talk it through with a counselor.”
From there, the counselor can work with clients on challenging cognitive distortions and black-and-white thinking, Imhoff suggests. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be helpful, as can guiding clients to adopt a growth-focused orientation. With that mindset, every social interaction becomes an opportunity to learn rather than a pass-fail situation, Imhoff explains.
Clients with social anxiety may also feel that they’re failing because they can’t assume an extroverted, life-of-the-party façade. Counselors can help these clients learn that there is a continuum of social skills, Imhoff says. For example, perhaps they got through a work meeting and contributed their thoughts despite having a shaky voice and sweaty palms. “Work on [helping them realize] that it’s not black and white, it’s not all success or failure. There’s an in between for almost all scenarios,” he says. “Help them to recognize that in all social interaction, there is ebb and flow. It’s not a pass-fail exercise but an opportunity to connect with someone and learn moving forward.”
Additionally, ACT techniques can help clients learn to accept their anxiety rather than trying to get rid of it or avoiding triggering situations. Imhoff uses the imagery of “keeping anxiety in the passenger seat because I know it’s coming along but not letting it take control of the wheel.” Clients can learn to say, “There you are anxiety; I knew you were coming,” even as they move on with life and navigate situations they previously would have avoided.
Scott regularly uses cognitive restructuring and cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) with her clients who have social anxiety. She also uses a mindfulness technique called curiosity training that helps clients label their anxious thoughts as “background noise.” With this technique, users try to adopt an approach of curiosity about and interest in what is being said by others rather than assuming that others are judging them.
“In any situation,” Scott says, “whether they’re having a conversation, public speaking or sitting somewhere having lunch, they’ve usually got a constant dialogue going in their head. [It’s] self-criticism about how people must be thinking of them: ‘They don’t like my clothes’ or ‘I just stuttered while speaking.’ Curiosity training helps keep your mind on the present and learn how to pull your mind back when it starts wandering.”
Elizabeth Shuler, an LPC who has been working as an international school counselor in Amman, Jordan, for four years, recommends mindfulness techniques. She has often used Kristin Neff’s self-compassion practices in addition to dialectical behavior therapy, meditation and yoga for clients with social anxiety, both when she was in private practice in Colorado and Wyoming and currently in her work with adolescents and adults at her school.
“When we dig into their fears, most clients with social anxiety are really afraid that other people will agree with their own negative judgments of themselves. They’re worried that they will be proved right,” says Shuler, an ACA member. “I had a client who walked through the office the same way every day to avoid the people he was afraid of interacting with and had panic attacks when his route had to change or people he was avoiding crossed his path. These types of behaviors are meant to stave off panic but end up reinforcing it. My role as a counselor is to help clients see how these behaviors are actually making their panic worse and help them to slowly replace them with more helpful behaviors.”
Exposure techniques are often central to treating social anxiety because they gradually reintroduce clients to anxiety-provoking situations in a healthy way.
Miller is trained in exposure and response prevention and finds it a powerful tool for working with clients with social anxiety. The behavioral technique requires clients to put in a lot of work themselves outside of sessions. The counselor collaborates with the client to develop a hierarchy of exposure based on the client’s needs and treatment goals and supports the client throughout the process.
As Miller explains, exposure assignments start small and build over time as clients become comfortable with each homework task. She describes this as a “Goldilocks situation” — not too much challenge and not too little, but just the right amount, tailored to each individual client. Miller says she emphasizes to clients that the treatment is in their hands — they have to do their part to experience a successful outcome.
“A lot of people have anticipatory anxiety, but once they do it [complete the exposure assignment], they’re OK,” Miller says. “A lot of people get over that hill of worry. They do it for a week or two and realize they can do it. Trust between a client and clinician is huge because we’re asking them to do really scary things.”
Miller often gives clients who are early in treatment the assignment of calling multiple businesses to ask what their hours are. Clients might have to overcome feeling a little foolish because that information is readily available on the internet, she notes. However, the goal is for clients to complete the task without falling back on habits they formed to avoid social situations, such as relying on technology in lieu of having personal interactions. Clients repeat the task over and over until they no longer feel anxious about picking up the phone and making a call, she explains.
Once they’ve mastered that task, clients might move on to going inside a store and asking a question in person. Or they might switch to walking their dog in their neighborhood during a busy time of day and saying hello to at least one other person during each walk.
As clients complete each task and return to their next counseling session, they process these interactions with Miller, discussing how the interactions felt to them and what went right or wrong. “Sometimes the client will come in and say, ‘I’m so bored with this.’ I say, ‘Great! That means it’s time to move on to something bigger,’” Miller says. “You need repetition with assignments. You need to do [tasks] over and over for your brain to get used to it. … The more you do it, [the more] it overwrites [old] patterns and anxious feelings.”
As a practitioner who specializes in treating social anxiety, Scott has a laundry list of exposure assignments that she uses with clients, ranging from making eye contact during a shopping trip to asking for directions from a stranger to calling into a radio talk show to singing karaoke. As clients progress, it can be helpful to assign them tasks that are certain to create some level of discomfort or awkwardness, such as going into Starbucks and ordering a hamburger, she says. This can be especially hard for clients who have a strong fear of being judged by others, but dealing with the responses they receive desensitizes these clients over time as they repeat the tasks.
Miller acknowledges that counselors may need to provide their clients with some ongoing motivation during exposure work. If clients come to session without completing their assigned tasks, she suggests asking leading questions to find out if they are avoiding the work or genuinely struggling to make it a priority among their other challenges.
“Who wants to go home and do anxiety-provoking things?” Miller says. “[We] have to find a way to motivate them. We want them to feel empowered to go out and do [an assignment]. Remind them that they’re in pain because something is not changing. … You can’t snap your fingers and make this go away. It’s going to be hard work and take time.”
It can be useful to circle back and remind clients of their core beliefs and the goals they want to achieve. For example, consider clients who say they ultimately want to start a family but whose social anxiety prevents them from entering the dating scene and potentially meeting a partner.
“They may not see how calling a drugstore [as an exposure assignment] is getting them to be able to date. But remind them that they’re building a foundation to be able to do that,” Miller says. “It may not have an immediate payoff, but the easier these things become for you, everything builds.”
Miller often uses the metaphor of training for a marathon to keep clients motivated. You don’t run 26.2 miles right away, she tells them. You start with one or two miles and then keep adding more distance, mile by mile.
In addition to exposure work and cognitive restructuring, the counselors interviewed for this article recommend social skills training for clients with social anxiety. Avoidance behaviors may have kept these clients from learning and practicing social skills that are commonplace among their peers who do not deal with social anxiety.
“If you’ve been avoidant for years, you miss out on learning from all of the social interaction that others have had,” Miller says. “Sometimes they’ve built a life to minimize their pain, their anxiety.”
Goal setting and planning ahead, with support from a counselor, can help these clients navigate situations that are foreign to them and that naturally provoke anxiety. Miller suggests troubleshooting with clients. For instance, if their office holiday party is coming up, a counselor can talk through expected behaviors with clients and work on small talk and other exercises to help them get through the evening.
Setting realistic goals can also be comforting, Miller adds. “[They] don’t have to go in and work the room, [but] if they haven’t had a lot of social experience, they may not realize what’s expected,” Miller says. Instead, clients might set a goal of talking to three people whom they already know. Maybe at next year’s party, they can increase that goal from three people to five people.
Miller also reminds clients that a certain measure of social anxiety is simply part of being human. Even she, a therapist who makes a living talking to people, acknowledges sometimes being uncomfortable in social situations.
Kevin Hull is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Lakeland, Florida, who specializes in counseling children, adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum. Social skills training, along with group therapy, plays a large role in the work Hull does with clients around social anxiety, which he says often goes hand in hand with autism.
In individual counseling sessions, Hull uses puppets with clients to role-play social situations and work through what is expected. For example, Hull might instruct clients to verbalize a food order to his puppet without the usual help from mom or dad or ask his puppet for help finding a certain building on a school campus. Afterward, they process the experience together and talk about the emotions clients felt as their puppet had to interact and ask questions.
Humor can also be a great tool for overcoming the fear associated with social anxiety, says Hull, a member of ACA. He often shows clips of TV shows or movies (via YouTube) in client sessions as a lighthearted way of starting conversations about what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to social skills. Particularly popular with clients are scenes with The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper wrapping himself in bubble wrap to stay safe or wearing a second set of “bus pants” over his work outfit when taking public transportation. Another favorite is the title character in How the Grinch Stole Christmas, who initially can’t stand being around the Whos but ends up transforming over the course of the story.
“Using humor is a great thing to counter the fear,” Hull says. “When you can laugh at something, that gets people opening up and listening.”
Group therapy — a format in which clients are expected to interact with others and contribute to a discussion — would seem to be a nightmare for individuals who are socially anxious. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to Hull.
Although it can take clients some time to warm up to the idea, group therapy can play a powerful role in imparting the skills needed to navigate social anxiety, says Hull, an assistant professor and faculty adviser in Liberty University’s online master’s counseling program. In addition to helping participants sharpen their social skills, group counseling can instill perspective — something with which Hull’s clients who are autistic sometimes need extra help.
“With autism, clients have a hard time putting themselves in others’ shoes, so group is a great way for them to hear from the mouths of peers [and] hear them talk about what they’re going through,” Hull says. “Maybe someone [in group] had to ride a different bus than usual. It was terrifying at first, but they were OK and actually ended up talking to the person they sat next to.”
The group format, in which participants take turns offering comments, can model and teach the back-and-forth “tennis match” that is the basis of healthy conversation, Hull adds. It can also help clients learn to tolerate and listen when someone is talking about a subject that doesn’t interest them — a circumstance that previously would have triggered their fight-or-flight response and caused them to exit the situation.
Hull often has group participants speak for five minutes each on something they are passionate about. Afterward, he urges all of the group members to ask questions or make a comment about what was said.
“This is really hard with autism. If they don’t like something, it’s utterly meaningless to them,” Hull says. “This has them put themselves in others’ shoes and imagine how it’s like [something that they] like. This can transfer to social situations outside of group, such as a dinner party where other people are talking about whatever. Can you listen and learn something? It’s teaching their brain to overcome fear and learn a new normal. Everyone is scary when you first meet them, but you can do it. If you can do it in group, it’s the same as at school or a new job.”
Hull also uses video games in sessions as a way for participants to learn about group dynamics, leader/contributor roles and overcoming frustration (see sidebar, below).
It is important to prepare individuals with social anxiety for the group setting as much as possible ahead of time. Hull often shows clients the group room at his office (or emails them photos of it) and explains the format and what sessions will entail before they join group counseling.
“I walk back to the [group] room with the client and their caregiver before a group session so they can see it,” Hull says. “I explain, ‘Everyone who is coming here feels what you feel, and they’re all struggling with this.’”
When new clients join a group, he never makes them introduce themselves or speak right off the bat. He also allows them to bring anything that might boost their courage, such as a favorite stuffed animal or even a parent in the cases of younger clients. With social anxiety, it is important to allow clients to warm up and contribute at their own pace, he says.
“I can see group members five or six sessions in and they haven’t talked yet. I never stop trying to get them to engage or open up, even if all they can do is a head nod or fist bump,” Hull says. “[I emphasize that] I’m just happy they can be in the room.”
Hull acknowledges that group counseling isn’t a fit for every client who struggles with social anxiety. Social anxiety falls on a spectrum, and for some clients, the disorder is so severe that a group setting would be too much, he says. It is important to continue individual sessions with these clients, with group counseling becoming a possible long-term goal for some of them, he says.
When it comes to group counseling and social anxiety, it is crucial to take things step by step and to celebrate little victories, Hull emphasizes. With clients on the autism spectrum “the victories are fewer and far between,” he acknowledges, “but when they happen … you feel like you’ve won the Super Bowl.”
The long haul
Hull says that counselors should view social anxiety as a process rather than something to “fix.” Neuroscience tells us that the brain responds better to slow and steady change rather than forced or rushed adaptation. This is especially true for clients who struggle with social anxiety in addition to neurodevelopmental issues, past trauma or other mental health diagnoses, Hull notes.
Something else that counselors should avoid is projecting their assumptions onto clients with social anxiety. Just because the counselor went to prom as a teenager doesn’t mean that should automatically become a goal for every teenage client or, for that matter, even be considered the rite of passage that it once was, Hull says.
Counselors should really get to know their client’s world first before doing anything else, Hull says. “Avoid putting your agenda or perceptions on a client. We often see the potential in our clients, and it’s hard not to say, ‘Just do it!’ It can be discouraging and slow going at times, [but] be patient.”
Technology and social anxiety: A double-edged sword
We live in a world where a person can text a happy birthday message to a friend, order a week’s worth of groceries for delivery and apply for a loan with the click of a button — all without having to speak to another human.
So, when it comes to social anxiety, technology can be a double-edged sword. Clients can certainly use it as an easy escape route to avoid social situations. At the same time, mental health practitioners can use it as a teaching tool with clients and as a bridge to overcoming long-held behavioral patterns.
“As great as it can be, technology can be part of avoidance,” says Robin Miller, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who specializes in treating adults with anxiety. “Learn how to have conversations [about technology]. Make sure a client isn’t too reliant on it and unable to do things in a more social, direct way.”
Miller suggests that professional clinical counselors ask clients about their technology use at intake along with other questions about avoidance behaviors. Counselors can prompt clients to provide examples of situations where they feel most anxious and then listen for overreliance on technology, such as texting to ask someone out on a date or habitually using the self-service checkout line when shopping.
Social media can also exacerbate the assumption of judgment that often accompanies social anxiety, Miller adds. Clients who see photos and posts about friends’ and peers’ vacations, children or happy life events may come to believe that their lives pale in comparison.
Elizabeth Shuler, an LPC and an international school counselor, agrees. She says social media has created a new layer of social anxiety “centered around likes, comments and followers” in many of the adolescents with whom she works.
“I see students every day who are upset — to the point of panic attacks — that they’ve lost followers or that no one is liking their Instagram pictures. Instead of being afraid of being seen as stupid, these kids are afraid of not getting likes. It is a whole new world of judgment that has been unleashed on our teens, and it is taking a toll,” Shuler says. “However, many people who find face-to-face interaction intimidating can benefit from starting with digital interactions. Using texting, video and other digital means of conversation can help people with social anxiety learn social skills and give them a chance to practice new skills in a safer, lower stakes environment.”
Kevin Hull, a licensed mental health counselor in private practice, finds technology — specifically, video games — a natural tool for working with his young clients, many of whom are on the autism spectrum. In group counseling, Hull uses multiplayer games such as Minecraft to introduce clients to interacting and working together in a way that provokes less anxiety than face-to-face conversation might. Group members take turns being a “foreman” and leader in Minecraft sessions. The group learns to communicate and work together while dealing with frustrations and the nuances of the leader/contributor roles. “If technology wasn’t there, these kids would be even more regressed,” Hull says.
Conversations about technology use can also be an important part of social skills training in counseling, Hull adds. For example, young clients might claim that they are “dating” someone when they are actually just texting or playing video games together over the internet.
Hull often talks with clients about how texting is a good place to start communication but that it should not become their be-all, end-all. He’ll say to the client, “It’s great you’ve made a connection through texting, but what about the next level? Your brain’s process to communicate in text is the same as in speech. It’s just a different route.”
— Bethany Bray
Social anxiety and college
The transition to college — leaving home, living with a roommate and establishing a new social circle, all while navigating academic responsibilities — doesn’t have to be paralyzing for students with social anxiety. Read more in our online exclusive, “Heading to college with social anxiety.”
Contact the counselors interviewed for this article:
Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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