How Does Social Anxiety Affect School and Work?

If you’ve ever made plans to hang out with friends, only to feel that wave of dread wash over you an hour before you need to leave the house because you just don’t want “to people,” you may be wondering if you have social anxiety. 

We’ve all canceled plans once or twice for various reasons, but if you’re canceling social engagements frequently because you get overwhelmed by the idea of being around people, even your friends, or if you miss school or dread going into work because of the small talk and social encounters involved, you might want to talk to your counselor or therapist about Social Anxiety Disorder.

Being an introvert is one thing but panicking about or avoiding every social interaction is eventually going to take a toll on your work or school performance (and your happiness), so let’s look at ways to understand and navigate living with social anxiety.

What is Social Anxiety Disorder? 

Social anxiety, or social phobia, doesn’t mean that you’re “antisocial” or don’t like other people. It can, however, mean anything from being shy about meeting new people to having actual panic attacks in the midst of social interactions. It can also manifest in oddly specific ways, such as a fear of public speaking or the inability to use public restrooms. It’s a diagnosable form of anxiety, which the DSM-V defines as a “marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others.” 

If you struggle to make friends, keep friends, find romantic partners, attend school, talk to teachers or bosses, or participate in activities that require you to be around people, you could be among the many folks who have SAD. You may have to be exhibiting pretty extreme anxiety about social situations to be diagnosed with the official disorder, but even if you’re just struggling with occasional nervousness, it’s valuable to recognize that it’s quite common to experience social anxiety on any level.

Signs & Symptoms of Social Anxiety

It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous before you present an important project in front of your class and to get that classic feeling of butterflies in your stomach before going on a date. Social anxiety takes those “normal” stress reactions to a whole new level. So how do you know if you have it? We’ve listed some examples already, but two big factors to look out for are avoidance and extreme discomfort. If you either go to extremes to avoid social situations in the first place or endure them while experiencing noticeable discomfort, you’re likely a socially anxious person, and you’re not alone. Some other common examples are:

  • Poor school or work attendance. While there can be a number of other reasons behind frequent absences, missing classes or work shifts is a common sign of social anxiety. Talk to someone about why you’re not showing up, and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you suspect you’re struggling with SAD.
  • Substance abuse. Someone with social anxiety may try to use substances as a way of “lowering inhibitions” when faced with socialization. While it may seem like a good idea to enjoy a glass of “liquid courage” to quell those nerves about making small talk at your next party, if you’re so uncomfortable that you need it, that’s a sign of an unhealthy reliance or addiction.
  • Loneliness or isolation. If you avoid socializing, it’s not surprising that you might find yourself missing your friends or wishing you had more support. If the fear of feeling uncomfortable or judged around others is extreme enough that you prefer to stay home, it’s time to consider whether you have SAD.
  • Feeling physically tense, avoiding eye contact, excessively sweating, or feeling nauseated in social situations. You make it out of the house, and you show up to the event! But you’re miserably uncomfortable the entire time. Though there are other illnesses that could cause this level of discomfort, it may also be a good idea to get evaluated for SAD.

Ways to Cope with Social Anxiety at School or Work

If you think you’re dealing with Social Anxiety Disorder, it’s important to see a professional so you can receive a diagnosis and pursue proper treatment. In the meantime, there are a lot of things you can try on your own to help with the complications of being socially anxious during your day-to-day life. For example:

1. Recognize unhealthy thinking patterns. Social anxiety is usually about the fear of being judged or rejected if we show up and offer ourselves to the world. It tells us that people won’t like us, that we’re too annoying, too loud, too quiet, too tall, etc. Learn to listen when your brain starts to tell you these lies and identify when your thoughts are repeating those lies to you. Remind yourself that you can’t read other people’s minds, nor can you predict the future. And in all honesty, people are often so focused on themselves, they aren’t really even paying that much attention to you. We think people are watching us MUCH more than they are.

2. Brush up on current events. If it’s the small talk and conversation that worries you, a little bit of study may help you feel more prepared for surprise interactions at work or school. There are a number of apps you can try to help you keep up with the news and pop culture tidbits. It may sound silly, but even, “Hey, have y’all seen this TikTok trend?” is a perfectly normal way to start or add to a casual conversation. Keep yourself up to date, and sooner or later, that knowledge will probably come in handy.

3. When appropriate, ask a friend to come with you to events. Obviously, you can’t just bring your BFF to sit next to you while you audition for the jazz band, but you could ask them to wait outside! And you can ask to bring a guest to a work party if that might help you feel more comfortable engaging with the event. Relying on the support you have is a great way to cope with SAD.

4. Move your body. The body and mind are connected, which is why you experience physical symptoms for psychological problems. This is actually pretty good news, because it means you may be able to mitigate the psychology (social anxiety) with the physical (moving your body). Take a break from whatever you’re doing when you start to feel anxious. Stand up, grab a glass or water, take some deep breaths, and do some stretching until you feel a little better. If you’re anticipating a tough day, take a long walk and listen to a book or podcast to fill up your “peace” tank--you may need it later. 

5. Leave when you need to. It’s okay to recognize that maybe you don’t have to sit through dinner if you’re so nervous that you feel like you might vomit, or if you’re shaking so hard you can’t continue with a conversation. Calmly and politely explain that you’re not feeling well and leave. Go home, be kind to yourself, and seek help from a professional to find treatments that can help you avoid another situation that extreme. 

Learn to Cultivate Real Community

There’s no shame in struggling with SAD, but if you’re struggling to talk about it, try reaching out to us at TheHopeLine. We’re happy to chat with you because we believe you’re worthy of love and respect, not the judgment and scrutiny you might fear happens with strangers. We were created for community, and when people can come together in love and trust to experience true fellowship and have a good time, there’s nothing more beautiful. Your social anxiety could be trying to rob you of that! Don’t let it.

-Cara Beth

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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