The difference between social discomfort and social anxiety disorder

Many people suffer from some degree of social discomfort, and it is normal to feel nervous before speaking in public, or about making new friends.

But when social anxiety prevents you from making your voice heard, or from utilizing your talents to the best of your ability, it could be social anxiety disorder.

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Social anxiety can hold a person back from pursuing opportunities and relationships, as well as potentially affecting academic and career progress.

‘Many of us have some level of discomfort expressing ourselves to other people, as we are social animals who are sensitive to approval or rejection from others,’ says clinical psychologist Mark de la Rey.

‘We all have valuable contributions to share. We have the power to uplift people, enhance understanding and create happiness in the world – if only we can open up and share a part of ourselves with others,’ he says.

Degrees of social discomfort
‘Being a little shy or anxious about making new friends, asking someone out on a date, or giving a presentation, for example, is fairly common.

While we may not find it comfortable, in most cases it should be possible for a person to overcome their anxiety to carry out these things.

‘A big part of the anxiety is often around communicating one’s inner thoughts to others. Social anxiety becomes more concerning if the individual has great difficulty making their voice heard.

‘If you find anxiety is preventing you from participating fully in some area of ​​your life, this may suggest a social anxiety disorder,’ explains De la Rey.

‘In more severe cases where the person can’t even conceive of expressing themselves romantic, for example with their colleagues, peers, or potential interest, or interacting with others more generally, this could be described as bordering on social phobia.

‘In such cases, professional assistance can help identify what the anxiety is stemming from, and, with the appropriate therapy or skills, the person is often able to move past their fears.

‘Social anxiety can be limiting, robbing the individual of opportunities for new experiences and personal development, as well as the ripple effects it can have on their families, who often find it frustrating to see their loved one unable to make the most of their life and abilities.’

Skills can help move past social anxiety
‘Fortunately, there are practical skills one can learn that are often extremely helpful for overcoming anxiety. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) skills, for instance, may be used alone or in combination with other types of therapy according to the kind of assistance the individual client requires,’ says De la Rey.

Learning DBT skills offers a way to manage anxiety and emotional responses, which can offer a practical process to work through the sometimes-crippling effects of social anxiety in a person’s daily life.

‘These skills are a non-apologetic way of observing and identifying what the person is feeling in those times, describing it, and deciding how to respond and participate – even though we might feel vulnerable or anxious about it.

‘The skillset involves learning what a person needs to do to manage anxiety and move past it, and skills relating to how we apply these in real life situations.

‘It really is possible to break through the grip of social anxiety and, once learned, apply these skills at work, school, university, and in your social relationships, including family, friendship circle and your partner.’

He said the pandemic was a major setback for many young people who may have already been on the verge of social anxiety disorder.

As social group support and interaction were removed, some have regressed and are finding their social anxiety overwhelming.

In the event of a psychological crisis, individuals can phone the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline on 0861 435787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor.


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