Breaking the ice on social anxiety

5 min read   •   October 5, 2023
Elmien Ackerman

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the world shaken, and the number of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders during and after the pandemic increased by about 25% worldwide. Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric illness – nearly one in three teenagers will meet the criteria of any anxiety disorder before the age of 18.

To help you understand and support learners struggling with social anxiety, we chatted with a psychiatrist in Pretoria East, Dr Beatrice Steenkamp, and Impaq alumnus, Aliyah Ayob.

 

What is social anxiety?

“Social anxiety is often loosely used to describe various conditions, including shyness, introversion, performance anxiety, etc.,” Dr Beatrice explains. Social anxiety is marked by feelings of nervousness and self-consciousness when exposed to a social situation where the person can be negatively perceived or rejected by others, for example:

  • daily social interactions (having a conversation with people, meeting new people),
  • performing in front of people (reading in front of the class, giving a speech), and
  • being observed by people (eating/drinking in public).

Symptoms to look out for

Aliyah says that her struggles with social anxiety started in her early teens and explains that her symptoms manifested as feelings of self-consciousness whenever she attended social gatherings. “My heart would feel like a ticking time bomb, my palms would clam up like freshly polished glass, and my voice seemed to vanish, leaving me strangled by an unshakable sense of dread. Worry of being scrutinised was the only thought that ran through my head,” Aliyah says.

Dr Beatrice explains that social anxiety symptoms are common. “Up to 36% of high school learners will report these symptoms.” Symptoms often make an appearance along with certain milestones, such as:

  • Going to school for the first time in Grade 1
  • Going to high school in Grade 8
  • Going to university
  • Going on a first date
  • Going for a job interview

Dr Beatrice adds that having some social anxiety, especially during these milestone events, is completely normal. But if these normal feelings of unease become more intense and negatively affect functioning, it could develop into Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). “The anxiety that the learner feels becomes out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation,” Dr Beatrice says. “Often the learner will know their fear is unfounded, but they cannot control it.”

The feelings of intense dread and discomfort then lead to avoidance of social situations. “If these fears and avoidance persists for six months or longer it is diagnosed as a disorder,” Dr Beatrice explains.

What causes social anxiety?

According to Dr Beatrice, the causes and risks factors of SAD are multifactorial and may include:

  • Genetic predisposition: Direct relatives of someone suffering from SAD may be up to six times more likely to develop social anxiety.
  • Learned behaviour: Children may model parents’ socially anxious behaviour.
  • Temperament: Underlying traits that predispose children to social anxiety are shyness, low self-esteem, poor social skills, and difficulty with relationships.
  • Physical appearance: Appearance that draws attention to the child, e.g., a severely crooked tooth.
  • Triggered incident: The child experienced an embarrassing incident, e.g., being laughed at when giving a speech.
  • Other factors: Unrealistically high expectations by parents and teachers, learning disabilities, and social media influences.

Also read: Helpful tips for managing your child’s academic anxiety

How to help someone with social anxiety

If you suspect that your child may be struggling with social anxiety, Dr Beatrice recommends the following on how to help:

  1. Talk to them about it, but do not minimise their symptoms as “nothing” or “silly”.
  2. Help them focus on progress, not perfection.
  3. Refer them to a professional who deals with psychiatric illnesses.

Treatment usually consists of a combination of medication and therapy. “Patients with social anxiety respond well to certain types of medication,” Dr Beatrice says. Therapy helps patients understand the disorder and focuses on relaxation techniques, challenging negative thoughts, gradual exposure to stressful situations and specific cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT).

Aliyah also tries various coping methods to ease her social anxiety, including:

  • Mindfulness practices like meditation and deep breathing help her to stay calm during tough times.
  • Creative activities like painting and writing allow her to express her feelings.
  • Regular exercise helps to reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Embracing a growth mindset helps her to accept her imperfections and embrace her vulnerabilities.

During her struggle with social anxiety, Aliyah’s mother served as a steadfast source of support. “She learned to recognise my challenges and gently prodded me to make baby steps towards interacting with others, rather than putting me in awkward situations,” Aliyah explains.

Read more: How to help a child manage depression

Homeschooling as an alternative option

“Homeschooling is a good alternative for learners who struggle to function at school due to debilitating social anxiety,” Dr Beatrice says. Aliyah agrees and adds that homeschooling freed her from the constant pressure of fitting in to an overwhelming social environment. “I found peace in self-paced learning with Impaq. I was able to foster a sense of confidence and self-assurance that I needed to overcome my social anxiety.” Aliyah not only learned how to manage her social anxiety, but also excelled academically, becoming one of Impaq’s top achievers in 2022.

 

Aliyah advises other learners dealing with social anxiety not to let setbacks bring them down. “Take small steps to face social challenges and celebrate even the tiniest achievements,” Aliyah adds.

If you feel that online schooling could be an option for your child and would like to discuss how we can assist your child, please reach out to us at sales@impaq.co.za or call us on 087 405 2233.