I’m a counselor, and many of the introverts I see come to me because of anxiety. Some of the clients I see have diagnosable anxiety disorders, but those who don’t are not suffering any less. When I say anxiety, I mean “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure,” according to the American Psychological Association. Anxiety can come in many forms and can have many different causes, but in this article, I want to talk about social anxiety.
Signs of Social Anxiety Disorder
Social Anxiety Disorder is a diagnosable disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) for counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. Not all people suffering from social anxiety fully meet the criteria for diagnosis but still have some symptoms that create debilitating issues at home, at school, at work — or in the line at Starbucks. Many of the clients I see have a fear of rejection, which is a defining symptom of both social anxiety and Social Anxiety Disorder.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, you might have Social Anxiety Disorder if you:
- Experience fear or anxiety in social settings. You might feel extremely self-conscious, like others are judging or scrutinizing your every move. For an adult, this might happen on a first date or a job interview, or when meeting someone for the first time, delivering an oral presentation, or speaking in a class or meeting. In children, the phobic/avoidant behaviors must occur in settings with peers — rather than adult interactions — and will be expressed in terms of age appropriate distress, such as cringing, crying, or just generally displaying obvious fear or discomfort.
- Worry excessively that you’ll reveal your anxiety and be rejected by others
- Consistently feel distress during social interactions
- Painfully or reluctantly endure social interaction — or avoid it altogether
- Experience fear and anxiety that’s grossly disproportionate to the actual situation
- Have fear, anxiety, or other distress around social situations that persist for six months or longer
- Find that your personal life, relationships, or career are negatively affected. In other words, your anxiety makes it quite difficult for you to function in day-to-day life.
For a diagnosis, these symptoms must be present for six months or longer and not be better explained by another mental health or medical diagnosis.
Why Is Social Anxiety Very Common in Introverts?
The research shows that introverts are far more likely to suffer from Social Anxiety Disorder than extroverts. A small study done in 2011 found that, “Social phobia patients were significantly more often introverts (93.7 percent) than were subjects in the normative population (46.2 percent).”
Although not all introverts suffer from social anxiety, this study suggests that introverts may, by nature, be prone to social anxiety in one form or another.
Introverts, in my practice, struggle so much with social anxiety because of their propensity to overthink and overanalyze situations. They find themselves caught in a cycle of planning out a conversation only to have it go differently than their script. This puts them on the spot — an introvert’s nightmare — and creates a high level of anxiety.
They then fall into the trap of mind-reading. Mind-reading is what some therapies, like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, call “thinking errors.” These patterns of thinking can be helpful in some situations, but when overused, they become harmful.
Many introverts are particularly vulnerable to the “error” of mind-reading because they’re so good at attuning to others’ body language, emotions, and energy that it feels like they always know what someone else is thinking — even though they don’t actually possess telepathy.
When a conversation goes off-script and anxiety is heightened, introverts often assume others are thinking critically of them and take this assumption as fact. The thoughts of “now he thinks I’m an idiot” — though perhaps false — create even more anxiety. It’s a vicious and debilitating cycle.
The Power of Fixing Thinking Errors
Let’s take an example from my practice. One young woman who came to me had a hard time making new friends. This girl was more mature than her cohort and seemed to be having trouble initiating conversation. As we talked, it came to light that her introverted trait of thinking before speaking had spiraled out of control. She’d rehearse for hours what she was going to say to a certain person, then be caught off guard when the conversation didn’t go as scripted. She then feared that people thought she was stupid or awkward (she was mind-reading) and became highly anxious.
After a conversation like this, she’d ruminate over what she should have said for days or weeks. Obviously, this left her too anxious to start any new conversations with anyone, which lead to a cycle of reinforcing her anxiety about social situations and her avoidance of them.
What did we do about it? The first step was education; we took some time to discuss both overthinking and mind-reading and how they relate to her introverted nature. She discovered that her tendency to overthink was very helpful in situations where she needed to analyze information and come to a conclusion, like schoolwork, but that with friends and family, it was creating a barrier to close relationships.
She was also able to see that while she is very attuned to others’ emotional states, she isn’t telepathic and can’t actually read others’ minds.
This education into the thought patterns that were feeding her anxiety gave her some valuable insights. For instance, she realized that the thoughts of “stupid” weren’t what she feared others would think of her, but what she thought of herself. Once we hit on this critical insight, she began to understand that her overthinking and mind-reading were ways to distract her from the mean things she was saying to herself.
It took quite a few sessions to help this girl become more self-compassionate and to lessen her overthinking. However, by the end of the school year, she was able to not only talk to new people, but to tackle intense, conflict-laden conversations she’d always avoided before.
Anxiety Doesn’t Have to Rule Your Life
This example gives us some valuable insight into how the introvert’s natural penchant for deep thinking and attunement to others can lead to harmful inner states. It also gives us a roadmap to moving forward and feeling better.
If you’re an introvert who suffers from social anxiety, the first step is always to do what you do best: look inside and bring awareness to the thought patterns that are no longer helping you. Some of the best ways to do this are mindfulness, yoga, and journaling. Mindfulness trains the mind to be non-judging and discerning of thoughts and feelings; yoga helps relieve stress and is a moving meditation; and journaling brings up the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and beliefs we aren’t aware of in daily life that may be holding us back. Sometimes you might need help to see what’s really going on, so talking to a friend, a family member, or a counselor can be invaluable.
Introverts are some of the most creative, thoughtful, and empathetic people I’ve ever met — and sometimes they need to use those talents to help themselves. Your anxiety doesn’t have to rule your life. With some attention to yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions, anxiety can be managed or overcome. Find a way to make your thoughts your friends, and you’ll live a healthier, happier, more social life.
More Anxiety Resources
- 15 Signs That You’re an Introvert With High-Functioning Anxiety
- Help for Introverts Who Have High-Functioning Anxiety
- 14 Things Introverts With Social Anxiety Wish You Knew
- The Difference Between Introversion and Anxiety (and Why It Matters)
- How to Survive a Job Interview When You’re an Introvert With Crippling Social Anxiety
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