Everyone has probably said or done something awkward in front of other people at some point in their lives, but if you feel like your awkwardness is tied to social anxiety, that's a whole other issue. And you're not the only one in that boat.
Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist based in New York City, says his practice receives a lot of calls from potential patients who have either diagnosed themselves with social anxiety disorder, or who think they might have symptoms.
If you think you might have social anxiety, it might comfort you to know that it's fairly common — according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it affects approximately 15 million Americans, and is the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder following specific phobias.
But as common as it is, not every awkward interaction means you have social anxiety. When someone suffers from social anxiety disorder, exposure to social situations or situations where they have to perform (say, a big presentation at work) provokes anxiety and can even induce panic attacks, which Lundquist says is different from simply feeling like you're awkward when talking to people.
"Some people just don’t feel good at social situations, but [those situations] don’t necessarily produce anxiety," he says. "That’s the difference between social anxiety and social awkwardness."
That being said, social anxiety and social awkwardness aren't totally different beasts. Lundquist says that social anxiety disorder can sometimes stem from feeling unskilled socially, or like you don't fit in.
"If people have had humiliating experiences, or experiences of being abused or emotionally harmed in social contexts, then that can express itself as social anxiety, fear and avoidance of social context," he says.
Social anxiety disorder, Lundquist says, is defined by being fearful of social situations and avoiding them, with the avoidance being the key part. Other signs? Strong physical symptoms when you have to confront a social situation, including a rapid heart rate, nausea, sweating and even full-blown panic attacks (though Lundquist says that a person doesn't necessarily have to experience all of these symptoms to have a social anxiety disorder).
According to the ADAA, the problem is when those symptoms get in the way of a person living their lives — for example, someone might turn down a job offer if it requires them to interact with new people all the time, or they might steer clear of going out with big groups of friends.
"If people are avoiding certain kinds of social situations, that speaks to an underlying anxiety," Lundquist says.
Fortunately, there are plenty of effective treatments for social anxiety. Lundquist says they can vary from person to person but generally involve cognitive behavioral therapy and addressing any possible trauma that could be a root of the anxiety.
Plenty of us might feel awkward around other people for a lot of reasons, but if your discomfort in social situations is interfering with your everyday life, you may want to check in with your doctor.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.