Social anxiety can have profound effects on your interactions within the world, shaping the way you communicate with those around you.
Walking into a party or expressing an opinion can be enough to elicit feelings of genuine terror, while public speaking may seem like an almost impossible feat.
However, there may be times in life when you are faced with the ‘threat’ of public speaking; perhaps after a promotion at work or when asked to deliver a best man’s speech at your closest friend’s wedding.
I know myself how much easier it is to avoid subjecting yourself to this terror.
But wouldn’t it be so much more satisfying to face it down?
Isn’t it time we were all given the tools to take action against crippling social anxiety?
being a person with social anxiety means you have to rehearse a single sentence a million times before actually saying it just to make sure that it sounds alright.
plus the mini internal debates on whether to approach a person or not.
— mharie (@ronshidenshi) May 1, 2018
Anxiety UK‘s CEO Nicky Lidbetter told UNILAD social anxiety is a common anxiety condition which can manifest in two ways.
Either it rears its ugly head as generalised social anxiety, ‘where the anxiety experienced is triggered by any social interaction or situation’, or as specific social anxiety, ‘where the anxiety is triggered by particular situations’.
Lidbetter says specific social anxiety can can be triggered when having to give a speech in public, or when on stage – hence the term ‘performance anxiety’.
UNILAD found out more about performance anxiety from a few famous faces:
Lidbetter explained how our fears of being judged can evoke anxiety, adding:
Public speaking anxiety centres on the worry of being negatively judged by others and can be severely limiting for those affected.
It is not uncommon for people with this difficulty to decline promotions in the workplace so as to avoid roles where public speaking is required. Equally social events with a requirement to speak in public can be challenging.
Psychotherapist and author of the best-selling book, Anxiety: Panicking about Panic, Joshua Fletcher MSc explained the effects of social anxiety to UNILAD.
Fletcher described ‘The Anxious Response’, saying:
It is an amalgamation of all the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as the racing heart, light-headedness, nausea and muscle tension – as well as the ‘What If?’ voice in your head, and the common feelings of fear and dread.
The Anxious Response, also known as Fight or Flight, is caused when the brain starts releasing chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline.
But The Anxious Response ‘shouldn’t be mistaken for an enemy’, he said, as it’s actually ‘trying to look after you’.
This message is particularly poignant on Mental Health Awareness Week 2018, during which the topic of discussion is stress, and how this innate human instinct for survival is constantly triggered as part of our toxic 21st century way of life.
So much so, it’s making us ill. But here’s how you can combat stress:
Fletcher shared his expert advice on the fight or flight response with UNILAD:
I always tell my clients that it’s okay to feel the effects of the anxious response, rather than trying to fight it or hide it from others. It’s completely normal and it isn’t hurting you.
Every time you think, ‘What if I faint?’, ‘What if I get laughed at?’, ‘What if I make a mistake?, just acknowledge that it’s your anxious mind throwing you suggestions as to why you feel so anxious.
Gently remind yourself this is the Anxious Response, along with your physical symptoms, and it’s okay to feel this.
Being in a big group of people you barely know, conversations happening that you don’t feel comfortable inserting yourself in, trying to work out how many people in the room hate you/whether you’re coming across weird while your head explodes – that’s social anxiety#mentalhealth
— Harriet Williamson (@harriepw) May 9, 2018
For a long time I felt comforted by expressing myself through writing despite being unable to speak comfortably before large groups of people.
But I am admittedly beginning to feel severely restricted by this.
Learning how to speak confidently in public is a deeply rewarding tool for those who are opinionated or who have an important message they wish to get across.
Public speaking coach and Director of Mindful Presenter, Maurice DeCastro, helps ‘people to find and value and respect their voice and use it in a way that’s more powerful and effective’.
Speaking to UNILAD, he explained:
They can use that in every area of their life. So it becomes what I call personal impact. To me, presenting is about ‘how do we impact with ourselves and with the rest of the world?’
Many influential people, whose lives involve a great deal of public speaking, suffer from social anxiety. This includes celebrities in the supposedly extroverted entertainment industry such as Adele, Jennifer Lawrence and Britney Spears.
It certainly appears there is a way to work through – or at least with – your social anxiety to improve your public speaking abilities.
But why does this often feel like such an unreachable goal?
my uncle and i both have generalized/social anxiety, and we went grocery shopping yesterday and two people with anxiety out in public is both hilarious and a shit show.
— angelina :) (@ang_hopeee) May 9, 2018
I spoke with Georgina Kirk, a communication coach from Put Yourself Across, who is often left frustrated by the inadequate public speaking techniques taught within schools and universities.
Kirk outlined her hopes for the students of the future:
Most schools and universities now require their students to make presentations, in the disastrously mistaken belief that people learn how to speak well in public by standing up and doing it.
Despite the idiom, no responsible teacher would expect a student to learn to swim by being thrown in at the deep end. Before being asked to present, students need to learn how to do.
I can personally relate to the dread of delivering school presentations. The memory of trudging, eyes down, to the front of the class still makes my blood run cold.
The trauma of standing before classmates feeling unable to speak without trembling only enhanced my fear. I can still remember the exasperation of being marked down, with the only advice being to ‘have more confidence’.
Now, as too many of us know, having more confidence is something much easier said than done, especially with a social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety is when you’re sitting on the outside of the seat while on the school bus and you freak out not knowing when the person on the inside is going to have to get off and having to worry about how awkward you’ll look when you have to stand up to let them through
— alex (@alerraly) May 9, 2018
I spoke with Vincent Stevenson, also known as The Fear Doctor, from the College of Public Speaking whose empathetic approach to those with social anxiety sees him open up about his own panic attacks during public speeches.
First thing I would do is accept them as they are, without judgement, and I welcome them and I thank them for being here today me and putting themselves in a situation where they can make changes about their life.
Stevenson has worked alongside participants who have undergone various traumas – including abduction – but have managed to move forward with their lives by overcoming how social anxiety affects the way they use their voice within the world.
The social anxiety disorder used to be called something else; neurosis. And effectively it’s the thought that if you find yourself in a particular situation, you are going to catastrophise about the outcome.
He told UNILAD the public speaking phobia – called glossophobia – is one of 540 recognised phobias, and advises sufferers should seek help and support.
i told my friends i was so busy for the meeting but i was just having my 14th mental breakdown about my social anxiety
— aleyna (@hugsofdolans) May 9, 2018
The Fear Doctor explained his methods:
The only way you can help anyone overcome a phobia is by gently exposing them to it in a safe, supportive setting. And then we let them go.
It’s a bit like, first of all you get them to dip their toes into the pool and then, after a few times they’ve done that then you get them to dive in.
But they know they are going to be safe, no one’s going to judge them, and that whatever happens happen. It’s all part of the process of moving forward.
I felt a bit lost & have not had that much motivation over the last few weeks to really go on social media or do my blog as just kinda didn't no where i wanted to go with my blog but taking this week off to get some inspiration back for it & just to work on my anxiety ?
— Chan?? (@ChansBeautyBow) May 9, 2018
I want to close this article with some advice from Joshua Fletcher, which really resonated with me.
He told me:
Unless you’re vying for first place at a stand-up comedy competition, remember that, in general, people are on your side. Public speaking is something a lot of us are afraid of and can empathise with.
Therefore, I believe that we always see a vulnerable part of ourselves in others when they are a bit nervous before a speech or a talk. You’ll probably find that people will have patience for you.
Also, the fact that you got up and took on the challenge of public speaking will undoubtedly inspire others in the room – whether this is communicated or not.
I believe that people are compassionate, particularly when they can directly empathise with an experience, so I suggest just reminding yourself of this.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, remember to be on your own side. This means no heavy self-criticism.
I suggest putting the energy into patting yourself on the back for challenging yourself to do what is ultimately a scary thing for many.
Many of the experts I spoke to had stories of anxious clients who felt they had ruined their speech, only to receive extremely warm and positive feedback from others in their group.
Social anxiety can give you a very skewed version of the world, making you feel alone and very ‘out of things’.
Once you take a step back from yourself and remember this, then your audience feels much less scary indeed.
Talking is often the first step to moving forward. While talking about mental health is vital, UNILAD are calling for action this Mental Health Awareness Week.
We are petitioning the government to improve mental health services offered on the NHS for young people, who sometimes have to wait ten years from the moment they experience their first symptoms to get adequate treatment.
We have written to Jeremy Hunt MP to tell him about our petition and demand the government take action. You can help by signing our petition, in partnership with WHOLE, here. To find out more about our campaign you can read our manifesto.
You can speak to someone confidentially about your mental health and wellbeing by calling one of the following numbers: Samaritans – 116 123 , Childline – 0800 1111 (UK) / 1800 66 66 66 (ROI), Teenline – 1800 833 634 (ROI).
Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.