What social anxiety looks like in children and adults

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Social anxiety is more common than we may think and it shows itself in more ways than meets the eye. Through the following examples I’m going to take you on a timeline back to a couple of origins of social anxiety.

Let’s start with Nicole, a 36-year-old female. On the outside she looks well put together, has a career, went to great schools and is about to get married. When colleagues see her, she always smiles, is noted to be kind and polite and very caring. No one would think she has social anxiety. However, when taking a closer look at Nicole, she seems to be a little shy in group setting, with a slight nervous laughter and hesitant to answer when spoken to. She prefers to blend into the background and is afraid to contribute to a group conversation. When someone talks to her directly she tends to choke up and have a hard time responding to the question or comment. Her opinion shifts constantly to be agreeable and lacks a personal opinion on most topics. The very few people close to Nicole, realize she has an addition problem. She wakes up and smokes marijuana just to be able to make it through the day and to be around people. At night and weekends when she is in social circles, she tends to have too many drinks and will get drunk to the point of black outs. After working with Nicole for several months it became clear that she is so afraid to be in social groups that she learned to cope with her extreme anxiety by numbing herself with substances.

Now let’s go further back in time with Nicolas. Nicolas is 19-years-old. He just graduated from high school and is going to college. Nicolas had to get his first job and has just started driving and gaining adult responsibilities. Nicolas had an awful hard time adjusting to all the responsibilities of adulthood and has needed extra help and support to get started in this stage of his life. Nicolas doesn’t really get close to too many people and self-reports himself as being “socially awkward.” When further looking at his personal definition of himself, he says, “I don’t know how to talk to people I don’t know. It’s hard for me to greet the cashiers or waiters/waitresses. I’m afraid I’ll come across weird or stupid so I just don’t say anything at all.” Nicolas copes with his anxiety by hiding behind his computer and engaging in the gaming world instead of hanging out with his friends and going to social gatherings. Nicolas feels safe in his virtual world where he can create a virtual image of himself and feed his fantasy. Nicolas copes by masking himself and hiding himself in his imagination and virtual reality.

Now let us go back even further in time with Sarah. Sarah is 11-years old. She has moved a lot. Her parents argue all the time, she has a hard time sleeping and she feels panic attacks all the time. Sarah’s mom is concerned because Sarah has a hard time making friends and is always stressed out. Sarah hasn’t really developed any coping skills for her social anxiety so it shows itself in a more raw form than her older counterparts. In sessions, Sarah talks about how she feels and says the only way she can deal with her feelings is to try to ignore them, which is a hard thing to do sometimes. She says it’s so hard for her to make friends and she starts crying. She doesn’t know why it’s so hard and feels there is something wrong with her. When she thinks about her life, she is always worried and thinks something really bad is going to happen. Sarah is longing for some predictability and peace. For Sarah, it’s hard to get close to people, because she doesn’t know how long she will know them or how they will react to her. She is emotionally fragile and consumed by instability. She is in the beginning stages of developing social anxiety.

To understand yet another root of social anxiety  we’ll go even further back with Scott. Scott is 7-years-old. Scott is considered to be very hyperactive, the children don’t like playing with him and he seems to have a hard time making any friends. Scott doesn’t know why the other children don’t like him or why the teacher always picks on him to follow the rules in class. At first glance many would think Scott may have ADHD, which is grossly misdiagnosed with youth these days. Scott really wants to be social and outgoing and really wants to make friends and do well in class, however, he keeps getting the message that there is something wrong with him or he is doing something wrong. Scott’s parents are overly critical and always give “negative attention” as in, always tell him how he is doing something wrong. This message keeps extending into his social life in school and on the playground. Scott starts developing a belief system about himself of “there is something wrong with me and always do something wrong.” This starts making Scott feel like he is not accepted. The seeds of social anxiety are being planted in Scott.

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