Is social anxiety making you hypervigilant?
Understanding Social Anxiety
Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is characterised by an intense and persistent fear of social situations, often leading to avoidance or extreme distress when exposed to circumstances or environments where other people are around. Individuals with social anxiety may fear being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated, which can significantly hinder opportunities in their personal and professional lives.
The Link Between Hypervigilance and Social Anxiety
Hypervigilance is a state of heightened alertness and increased sensitivity to potential threats or dangers in a particular environment. It is most commonly associated with an anxiety disorder such as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and social anxiety.
In social situations at work, hypervigilance can manifest as constantly scanning the surroundings for signs of criticism, rejection, or embarrassment. This hyper-awareness can be exhausting and further reinforce anxious thoughts, leading to a vicious cycle of increased anxiety and hypervigilance.
Examples of Hypervigilance in Social Anxiety
The impact of hypervigilance on individuals with social anxiety is far-reaching. It can have many consequences, including an inability to build new relationships, avoiding academic or professional pursuits that can grow their career, and perceiving social interactions as being more negative than they really are. Another impact is a constant preoccupation with one’s own image and how they are being perceived
Here are a few examples to illustrate the challenges:
Overanalysing Body Language
Those with social anxiety often find themselves obsessively analysing others’ facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice to determine if they are being judged or rejected. For example, interpreting a brief glance away from a colleague as a personal offence or assuming that a crossed-arm gesture indicates hostility or disagreement.
By being hyper-attuned to subtle non-verbal signals, people who are hypervigilant are more prone to assigning negative meanings to them, even when the cues may have no intended negative connotation.
Fear of Public Speaking
Hypervigilance can intensify the fear of public speaking or delivering presentations as individuals become acutely aware of every gesture, facial expression, or slight reaction from the audience, further fuelling their anxiety.
Becoming hyperaware of their own personal physical sensations, such as increased heart rate, sweating, or trembling, can further amplify their anxiety. This hyperfocus on their own thoughts and pressure to perform can lead to self-doubt and a fear of being judged or scrutinised by others. A hyperfocus on their own physical sensations increases their estimations of how much other people notice this, which leads to a fear of being judged and scrutinised.
Avoidance and Isolation
Hypervigilance can lead to avoidance behaviours and social withdrawal. Individuals may choose to isolate themselves to minimise the distress caused by constantly scanning for potential threats or being observed in social situations.
For example, people with social anxiety might neglect their mental and physical health by avoiding the gym, community events or any public space where there is a fear of drawing attention to themselves. It can cause someone to live a life which does not actually reflect their goals or values for life because they are too fearful of being in social settings or situations
How common is social anxiety?
Almost everyone experiences social anxiety occasionally on a less severe basis. According to Patient.info, as many as 1 in 10 people in the UK have social anxiety disorder. Globally, it is estimated that around 7% of the population experiences or has at some point experienced social anxiety to some extent, highlighting the significance of this issue on a global scale.
Therapeutic Approaches and Overcoming Hypervigilance
While social anxiety and hypervigilance can be challenging, there are effective therapeutic approaches to help challenge negative thought patterns and calm the nervous system so it can navigate social situations with ease.
One widely recommended treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts, beliefs, and behaviours associated with social anxiety.
Tips to calm your nervous system
- Before entering the workplace or social settings, try to soothe your nervous system with experiences, interactions or resources that help you feel safe. Some examples include: watching a favourite tv show, a hug, a warm bath, listening to music or walking in a nearby park.
- If you find yourself in a situation where you start to feel anxious, remind yourself it is ok to take breaks. This may look like a quick trip to the bathroom, getting yourself a drink or taking a short walk around the building to clear your head.
- Watch out for ‘catastrophising’ thought patterns. These are common cognitive distortions in social anxiety and can lead to more fear and panic. Once you have identified a thought, ask yourself: ‘Do I have any evidence that this thought is true?’
It is important to note that these tips might be helpful to distract from anxiety but can sometimes become a safety behaviour in specific cases.
For example, people may only feel they are able to be in social settings with their music on or on their phones, or people may feel they need to leave or take a break every time they experience anxiety and, therefore, never learn to normalise it and tolerate it.
Promoting Mental Wellbeing
Therapy can play a crucial role in managing social anxiety. It is important to remember that individuals can overcome hypervigilance and foster better mental wellbeing in the workplace, ultimately finding greater confidence and ease in navigating necessary social interactions between co-workers and managers. Consider talking therapy with a licenced therapist as a good first step in managing your social anxiety and getting the most out of life. Get in touch with the team at Onebright to schedule an appointment.