How You Can Help a Friend With Social Anxiety

March 10th 2017

Some of your friends may feel shy in large groups, like at parties or bars, or when meeting new people. 

And that's pretty common. We all feel awkward or shy sometimes, but some people consistently experience social anxiety that can hold them back from making friends, going to events, or being effective at work. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says about 15 million Americans have social anxiety disorder, which goes beyond simply feeling shy. 

"When it goes from shyness to social anxiety disorder, you begin avoiding things to the point where it can actually interfere with your social life or work life," Jennifer Shannon, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy told ATTN:."You're avoiding speaking up in meetings or going to social events, and meeting new people makes you anxious." 

People with social anxiety feel self-conscious and extremely worried about certain social situations to the point where it disrupts normal life. It can also include performance anxiety tied to activities like giving a speech, performing on stage, or playing sports. 

So how do you help a friend who has symptoms of social anxiety? 

If your friend's social anxiety is too severe, you probably can't, and experts would encourage someone struggling with social anxiety symptoms to see a mental health professional. 

"If the person was pretty willing and wanted to get over this and was doing different things to improve, then maybe they don't need professional help, but if they're very resistant, or the level of avoidance they're experiencing is too great, [then] they need a professional." said Shannon, who has written multiple books on anxiety, including a social anxiety workbook for teens. "Definitely, if the person is not leaving their house, a friend is not going to be able to help them." 

However, sometimes friends can give a helpful nudge in the right direction. 

Here are three ways you can help your friends with social anxiety, according to experts. 

1. Don't force your friends into social situations they're not ready to be in. 

Sometimes "tough love" seems like the best approach, but simply forcing someone into the social situations they're afraid of probably won't help in the long run. Shannon said that avoiding social situations is a significant problem for people with social anxiety but there is more to it than that. 

"It is true that moving toward the things that make one anxious is going to be what helps a person with social anxiety, but it's not just about being in a social situation," she said. People with social anxiety can, very unpleasantly, force themselves through a social situation but not improve the negative thoughts that are making the situation miserable. 

"Most people with social anxiety are in a social situation all the time and their anxiety is not getting better," she said. "I call it 'white knuckling.' They're hoping they don't say something embarrassing, and when you're 'white knuckling' you're not going to get over your anxiety that way." 

Barbara Van Noppen, Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine told ATTN: that it's not good to force a friend into a social situation but should encourage them with a plan for the things that worry them. 

"It is not helpful to force anyone, yet it is in their best interest not to accommodate either," she said via email. "The best thing is to try to coach them by making 'contracts' to help expose them to triggering situations ahead of time, and have a plan." 

2. Tell your friends they don't have to be perfect. 

Shannon said that people with social anxiety tend to set unrealistic goals for their social interactions that they can't actually meet. 

"Social anxiety is really a problem with what I call social perfectionism. It's this idea that when you're talking with somebody that you should be kind of perfect." she said. "You should sound interesting and intelligent, and you should be funny and never forget anyone's name." 

A key to helping a friend is to set one goal for a social interaction that makes the person uncomfortable, but is still manageable. 

"That means share one idea in a meeting, and it doesn't need to be great, and pat yourself on the back," she said. "If you're gong to a party, go up to somebody ask them a question and share something about yourself. Throw in a smile. Meet a realistic goal."

3. Remind them that they shouldn't be ashamed. 

Shannon said it's important to tell your friends with social anxiety that they're not alone, and everyone has experienced some level of fear or discomfort in social situations at some point. 

"The truth is all of us have some level of social anxiety, and that really stems from wanting to be respected and having a sense of belonging," she said. Shannon said that people with consistent social anxiety and their friends should understand how common these fears are in reality. 

"Something that I re-enforce with my clients is that anxiety is not a form of weakness," she said. "It's the common cold of mental health and people give themselves such a hard time for having it."  

RELATED: Here's Why You're Afraid to Talk on the Phone

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