It’s normal for everyone to feel stressed, anxious, and worried from time to time. While many people have heard the term “anxiety disorder,” few understand that there are multiple types.
Continue reading this blog to learn about what causes social anxiety in young adults, as well as how they can cope with their negative thoughts.
Social Anxiety vs. Generalized Anxiety
The most common type of anxiety disorder is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Individuals diagnosed with this anxiety disorder experience feelings of excessive fear and worry over everyday events or future situations both in and out of social situations.
It has become a common misconception that someone with social anxiety is simply a person who doesn’t like being around others. However, this is not the case. People who are extroverts, often described as talkative, outgoing, and sociable, can also suffer from social anxiety.
Social anxiety disorder (SAD), also known as social phobia, differs from GAD because individuals will predominantly experience feelings of fear and worry in social settings, interactions, or one-on-one engagements. Oftentimes, this results in individuals struggling to establish and maintain meaningful relationships.
Generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder are very similar, and both are considered serious medical conditions. However, recent studies have shown that social anxiety is more prevalent in young adults.
In these studies, researchers indicated that about 10% of those affected by SAD are exiting their adolescent years (22-24) and about 90% of cases occur by the age of 23. This confirms that social anxiety in young adults is a growing issue that needs to be addressed.
Anxiety disorders can occur alone or concurrently with other mental health conditions. For example, an extrovert with social anxiety may also develop symptoms of depression. When disorders occur concurrently, the symptoms can become worse and even more disruptive to a person’s daily life.
How Do I Know If I Have Social Anxiety?
When everyday social interactions cause an individual to feel excessive fear, self-consciousness, and embarrassment, they may have social anxiety.
Like many mental health disorders, social anxiety can present itself in a variety of ways including physical, mental, and behavioral. Below, we have listed some of the defining characteristics and symptoms of social anxiety in young adults.
Mental and Behavioral Symptoms
- Intense fear of social interactions in a wide variety of contexts.
- Anticipatory anxiety leads individuals to avoid opportunities for conversation or public speaking.
- Extreme symptoms of anxiety are experienced during unwanted or stressful social interactions.
- Poor verbal communication skills can be complicated by a person’s inability to think clearly while experiencing anxiety.
- Overly critical self-evaluations of performance after conversations or social interactions.
- Low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence are reinforced by constant self-criticism.
- Experiencing a “blank mind” in social situations.
- Severe anxiety or panic attacks when experiencing the feared situation.
- Blushing, sweating, or trembling.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Nausea or feeling sick to the stomach.
- Rigid body posture.
- Speaking in an overly soft or shaky voice.
- Difficulty making eye contact.
- Trouble catching breath.
- Dizziness or lightheadedness.
- Muscle tension.
Someone suffering from severe social anxiety has a deep-rooted fear of being judged, rejected, embarrassed, or humiliated during social interactions. These thoughts and feelings can be challenging to overcome but can be successfully treated.
3 Root Causes of Social Anxiety
Over time, researchers have found that the root causes of social anxiety can vary based on a number of factors. Similar to other mental health conditions, it can be difficult to say exactly where social anxiety originates from person to person.
However, there are 3 main elements that are known to increase the likelihood of a person experiencing social anxiety.
While it’s impossible to know just how much of the parent-child social anxiety association is based on genetics vs. parenting style, it is confirmed that social anxiety can run in families.
Studies have proven that individuals with a parent or parents who have suffered from social anxiety have a 30-40% higher chance of developing the condition themselves.
People with social anxiety have hyperactivity in the part of the brain known as the amygdala. This part controls the physiological changes associated with a person’s “fight or flight” response.
Typically, when a person feels anxious, their mental focus will shift to the prefrontal cortex. Here, the brain is able to assess the situation rationally and calmly and then send signals back to the amygdala confirming that there is no threat.
However, people with social anxiety have such an ingrained fear of other people’s reactions that their brain actually sees social situations as valid threats. As a result, their prefrontal cortex does not send the correct signals back to the amygdala, leaving the individual unable to think or reason clearly.
3. Environmental Influences
It’s been proven that an individual’s environment can be a root cause of social anxiety. These include past life events such as:
- Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
- Bullying or teasing by peers
- Family conflict, domestic violence, or divorce
- Death or desertion by a parent
Traumatic experiences like the ones listed above can negatively impact an individual because they often reinforce the idea that the world is an unpredictable and frightening place.
How to Overcome Social Anxiety as a Young Adult
Anyone can develop social anxiety. However, as we mentioned before, the disorder is more prevalent in young adults. As individuals transition into adulthood, they’re expected to connect with others, building both professional and personal relationships.
This can be difficult for anyone, especially someone who has trouble in social situations. In order to connect with others, a person needs to have a healthy social life and good communication skills.
Learning how to overcome social anxiety as a young adult is an essential step towards feeling fulfilled in all aspects of their lives. In this section, we’ll provide tips young adults can use to cope with social anxiety in college, the workforce, and many other social contexts.
Tip #1: Challenge Negative Thoughts
Negative thoughts fuel social anxiety disorders by contributing to irrational feelings of fear and worry. When a person works to change their mentality, they can combat negative thoughts, making room for positivity and reason.
The first thing to do when learning how to challenge these thoughts is to identify the automatic negative thoughts that underlie their fear of social situations.
For example, if a college student has a presentation, they may think:
“I’m going to mess up and look incompetent in front of my peers.”
The second step is to challenge the initial thought.
For example, using the same scenario as above, a student could follow their judgment by asking:
“How can I be 100% sure I’m going to ruin the presentation?” OR “Even if I make a mistake, how does that prove I am incompetent?”
Challenging thoughts is one of the best ways to encourage individuals to think rationally and find perspective, even in a state of panic.
Tip #2: Stay Away From Unhealthy Thinking
Social anxiety in young adults can also stem from habits of unhealthy thinking. There are certain thinking styles many people participate in without even realizing it.
- Mind reading. We assume we know what other people are thinking, even without proof. In addition, we believe that other people are seeing the same negative things we see in themselves.
- Fortune telling. We try predicting the future and do so while assuming the worst possible scenario will occur, making us anxious before a situation even takes place.
- Catastrophizing. We blow things out of proportion. Thinking that if someone notices we are anxious it will be disastrous and terrible.
- Personalizing. We are convinced that the people around us are focusing on us in a negative way, or assuming that anything bad going on with someone else has something to do with us.
Being aware of these thinking styles can be helpful because they provide red flags for individuals to look out for when reflecting on their own reactions or thought processes.
Tip #3: Gradually Introduce Anxiety-Inducing Situations
Anxiety and stress are a part of life. No matter how hard we try, there will always be something that causes us to feel uncomfortable or worried. As a result, it’s impossible for an individual to completely cut anxiety-inducing situations out of their life.
The best way to cope with this is by gradually facing the fears that cause anxiety. When doing this, it’s important for people to remember to start small. For example, a college student with social anxiety can try to introduce themselves to a new person or participate in a class discussion.
Over time, situations that used to feel unbearable will become easier to handle. In addition, setting small social goals will allow the individual to feel as if they are in control of the situation, making it less scary and providing an opportunity for the person to have a positive experience.
Tip #4: Adopt Healthy Coping Mechanisms & Lifestyle
When an individual starts to feel anxious, it’s important that they have the proper tools to work through their emotions. There are many different strategies that can be used, it’s up to the individual to decide which mechanisms work best for them. Some of these can include:
- Breathing exercises
- Mindfulness practices
- Muscle relaxation practices
Social anxiety in young adults can be negatively impacted by certain lifestyle choices. In addition to adopting healthy coping mechanisms, there are other practices individuals can partake in to stay on top of their anxiety:
- Avoid or limit caffeine intake.
- Exercise regularly.
- Avoid or limit alcohol intake.
- Quit or avoid smoking (nicotine).
- Avoid all recreational drugs.
- Get enough quality sleep.
- Talk to a mental health professional.
Helping a young adult manage their social anxiety is difficult for anyone involved. It’s important for individuals with social anxiety to remember that anxiety is not as visible as they may think.
By talking to a mental health professional, individuals can get the support they need to create a healthy and fulfilling social life.