How to spot when someone has social anxiety, and how you can help

Social anxiety disorder (SAD) is a mental health issue which is very common, but often hard to identify. The psychological condition occurs when people experience distress or a feeling of extreme nervousness in social situations, often fearing being judged negatively by others.

It’s a condition many of us suffer with when travelling. Meeting new people and going out of your comfort zone in unknown surroundings can be an overwhelming and difficult experience for anyone, let alone those who suffer from SAD. So how can you spot if someone is socially anxious and most importantly, how can you help them?

What are the symptoms of social anxiety?

Social anxiety can be mistaken for many other mental health problems, so it’s important to know exactly what the symptoms are.

The condition is more than just shyness; people with social anxiety often have very low self-esteem and will avoid social situations.

They dread starting conversations, meeting new people and even going to work or speaking on the phone. So, if someone with social anxiety decides to travel, it’s a pretty big deal and an experience which will most likely cause them extreme anxiety and distress pre-travel and during their first few days. It’s likely they will build up their fears, have sleepless nights and be on edge, and that’s before their travels have even commenced.

People with social anxiety will often worry or feel embarrassed about things that would not phase others, resulting in blushing, sweating and often avoiding eye contact. More serious cases of anxiety may lead to a feeling of sickness and heart palpitations which on the exterior will translate into sweating and trembling. In an extreme case of SAD, when people experience an overwhelming feeling of fear and anxiety, they may have a panic attack. This raised heart beat and feeling of chocking usually only lasts a few minutes and can be recognised by a shortness of breath, trembling, shacking and sweating.

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How can you help someone with social anxiety?

If you see someone who has these symptoms, be it a friend, someone you’ve just met or a fellow traveller you haven’t even spoken to yet, there are things you can do to help. And believe it or not, the smallest of gestures can make the biggest difference to someone’s mental wellbeing.

What not to say

If you’re a confident person who’s never suffered from social anxiety, it’s easy to just not comprehend what someone else is going through or how you can help them deal with their issues. Questions like ‘why do you feel anxious’, asking someone to calm down or giving tough love will often do the opposite effect. Instead, the following if far more beneficial:

Be Friendly

People who suffer from SAD may seem very standoffish and even unapproachable, but this doesn’t mean they don’t want to have friends. They in fact often crave friendships but don’t have the confidence to interact. Helping people with SAD gain that confidence and initiating interactions can come from the smallest of gestures – a smile, introducing yourself, asking them questions about themselves. It’s crazy how much someone who seems introverted actually has to say, they just need that initial incentive to open up.

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Don’t criticise

The worst thing you can do when someone has low self-esteem is bring their attention to it. Saying ‘you’re too shy’, ‘you need to speak up more’, ‘put yourself out there’ etc. will only make them more aware of these issues. Instead, encourage them to come to social events, invite them out, be by their side, introduce them to people and make them feel like they belong. Increasing someone’s confidence is the best way to help them overcome their social anxiety.

Use distraction techniques

If someone is suffering from anxiety it’s likely that all they are thinking about is being anxious. Asking them about their anxiety, why they have it and saying they need to calm down will often only make them more anxious. Instead when someone is suffering from social anxiety, you should completely avoid the topic all together. Talk about literally anything else, go get an ice cream, play an interactive game or sports activity to pre-occupy their mind and help them calm down.

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Be patient

It’s often easy to lose your temper when you don’t fully understand what someone is experiencing. But raising your voice or snapping at someone will only make their anxiety worse. It’s likely that they are distressed about how they feel and frustrated that they don’t know how to manage it. So be patient with them, be calm, and be there for them in any way you can.

Be funny

Laughter really is the best remedy. The feel-good brain chemicals and happy endorphins laughter releases don’t only instantly make you feel a whole lot happier, they also release stress and take people’s minds of any social anxiety issues. Being light hearted and having some giggles can really be the prefect cure!

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