Symptoms of social anxiety: Why is my body doing this?

symptoms of social anxiety


"Why is it when I'm in a new situation my body reacts by getting shaky and I feel on edge and physically sick, yet in my brain I know it's not a big deal? Like the other day I was going to an acquaintance's business to talk to them about doing some casual work there. There was no pressure, it wasn't an interview, and I was looking forward to it. Yet my body reacted like I was about to walk into the middle of a battlefield. I kept thinking to myself What the hell?! Everything is fine, stop freaking out. I tried doing deep, relaxing breaths...nothing seemed to work. Any insights are appreciated. And is what I described pretty common/normal?"

Yea, it's really confusing why that's happening. Like what the heck, why is my anxiety so high in this situation?

You may want to check out this course with animations that shows exactly why that happens. This cheat sheet and free mini-anxiety course also explains what's happening but in less detail.

The core fear in social anxiety is fear of negative judgment.

From an evolutionary perspective, we need people and friends for emotional and physical survival, and when our primitive/emotional brain (the amygdala) thinks we may not be accepted by others, it perceives this as dangerous and tells our nervous system to release adrenaline and other chemicals. These chemicals help us physically run and fight the danger. But wait a minute...this is not a physical danger so why are we getting all of these chemicals that help with running and fighting? High levels of those chemicals in social situations are exactly what we don't need. The fact is, we have 3-parts to our brain and two of them are very primitive. Our rational neo-cortex brain evolved later. So as humans we have to work with a primitive alarm system (amygdala) that has a tendency to produce false alarms. For individuals with social anxiety, our amygdala is sending us false alarms and we have to retrain it to stop.

Those chemicals produce confusing symptoms that can start a whole chain reaction of shame (something is wrong with me), lack of confidence, confusion, and feeling out of control which understandably can lead to panic attacks, worry and anticipatory anxiety, rumination, feeling hopeless or depressed, and so on. Symptoms include difficulty concentrating, mind going blank, sweating, painful self-awareness (too focused on ourselves), heart beating faster and more listed here. The intense symptoms make those situations even harder which creates more fear...so the cycle is self-perpetuating. This is the trick that the fear center in your brain (the amygdala) has played on you. Your amygdala set off a false alarm telling you this situation is dangerous when it's not.

Fear is a paradox. It's not intuitive. The more you fight the symptoms, the more intense your symptoms will become. To overcome social anxiety, you have to do the opposite of your natural inclination. No wonder so many people get caught for years and decades. You can't think or talk your way out of this problem. Once you understand how fear works and the paradox, you'll have taken the first important step to overcoming this.

The course explains how to step in and when to step in to stop that cycle. It explains the two stages of fear: First fear and second fear. You can't control first fear, but you can control second fear.

  • First fear = the symptoms you first experience when you enter that situation. These symptoms will dissipate very quickly if you don't add second fear.
  • Second fear = the fearful thoughts you pile on top of first fear like "OMG I'm getting anxious...I'm sweating...can they tell I'm nervous...will I make a fool of myself...this is horrible."

When you don't add fearful thoughts (second fear) and fight the symptoms, your nervous system will automatically turn your "relaxation response" on, and your symptoms will dissipate quickly - in seconds or minutes depending on how much adrenaline is in your system.

That's why it's important to go into these situations knowing that you will have some adrenaline (first fear) and to expect that. The symptoms from first fear dissipate in seconds if you don't add second fear. The key is to not add fearful thoughts on top of first fear. Fighting/hating/resisting the symptoms and adding fearful thoughts ("I hate the symptoms," "these symptoms are horrible," "OMG something is wrong") just gives more energy to the fear and those symptoms increase.

Are your symptoms common and normal? They are common for someone with elevated anxiety levels. Your symptoms mean that your nervous system is working perfectly (as it as designed to work). It's just that the primitive part of your brain (the amygdala) is interpreting that situation as dangerous when it's not really dangerous. So your brain is setting off false alarms and tricking you. See the next blog on fear levels. Sounds like you were in the medium-to-high fear level, and the symptoms you described are common once you get into that fear level. Being in the medium-to-high fear level means that your brain basically has set off a false alarm and has tricked you. Desensitization training can help to reset your primitive alarm system.

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