What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations, which affects every aspect of life for those who suffer from it, from work and school life to simple everyday activities.
While many people occasionally experience nervousness or worry before certain situations, those with social anxiety regularly feel extremely afraid of being judged by others, are very self-conscious in typical social settings, and feel symptoms of anxiety before, during, and after meeting new people.
These symptoms could include blushing or sweating, feeling like your mind has “gone blank,” feeling nauseous, and finding it scary and difficult to be with other people to the point where social situations are avoided at all costs.
This very distressing disorder (formally known as Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia) is a widespread problem and often starts in youth or the teenage years, developing beyond typical shyness and self-consciousness. The anxiety can be triggered by high-pressure situations such as a job interview or responding to a question in a lecture hall, or even inconsequential ones like interacting with the cashier at a shop or using a public restroom.
While secular psychology does not have many answers when it comes to what causes social anxiety, suggesting genetics or childhood bullying/teasing, the Bible offers much hope to Christians who are overcoming social anxiety by helping them explore themes of identity (who we think we are, how we should view ourselves and what significance we have) and idolatry (anything to which we give a place in our affections that rightly belongs to God).
If you suffer from this condition and feel that you can tackle its root cause (perhaps supported by anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a health professional), a trained Biblical counselor can help guide you through what the Bible says about renewing your mind to the point where you are overcoming social anxiety. These are some of the topics they might cover, and which are worth thinking through on your own:
The culture we live in thinks and talks a lot about the concept of “self-esteem” and how we view ourselves; with the underlying premise that a positive view of ourselves and our abilities – high self-esteem – is a good thing; while a less positive view, low-self-esteem, is a negative. Social media heightens the pressure to portray ourselves in a particular way, both to ourselves and the world, and raises the bar for our aspirations in every aspect of our life.
To cement our sense of identity, we rate ourselves on how we think we are performing in terms of what we value. If, for example, we value appearance, and have been going to the gym a lot, and been able to invest in well-fitting clothes, we will likely experience a patch of high self-esteem. This may be sustainable and become our go-to mode – being a person who has high self-confidence.
If, however, we slack off and for whatever reason are not able to match up to how we believe we should be looking according to our internal standards, we will feel bad about ourselves and have low self-esteem.
A person who struggles with social anxiety may have ingrained low self-esteem because of repeatedly feeling like they do not measure up to a self-imposed standard. If this is confirmed by the outside world (teasing, bullying, social humiliation) and taken personally, it could cause and aggravate social anxiety.
The Bible shows us, however, that the problem is not the low self-esteem, as secular culture would have us believe, but rather that we’re on a scale at all. We’re basing our view of ourselves on entirely the wrong premise. In studying the Scriptures, we see that God says little about the importance of feeling good about ourselves.
However, He does show us that we do have an identity because we were made in His image: “So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
This is the first truth to meditate on when beginning the journey of overcoming social anxiety – the fact that you have been created in the image of God is significant. As our Creator and Father, He loved us so much, that he even sent his son Jesus to die, so that we can be redeemed from our sin (John 3:16).
Digesting these verses can change how we see ourselves. We do not need to base our worth on how others see us, or how we view ourselves, but rather on what God says. And he affirms us as being lovable! We do, however, also need to understand that we are sinners, desperately in need of grace. When we think of our sin, it is a correct response to feeling bad about ourselves and having “low self-esteem”; so great are our transgressions.
While gaining a godly understanding of our identity may seem unrelated to the issue of overcoming social anxiety, as we grow more confident in our identity in Christ and who He has made us to be, we will feel less judged by others, and develop a sense of self-forgetfulness as we seek to love others and draw them into the Kingdom as our primary mission.
Fear of man
Another issue that plays into social anxiety and overcoming social anxiety lies in our brand of idolatry. Idolatry relates to what we worship in place of God. A casual test to detect the longings of our hearts lies in assessing where our thoughts naturally go in quiet moments.
If we’re often daydreaming about exotic holidays or potential home improvements, we might have an underlying comfort idol; or if we’re obsessively running through our finances, we might run the risk of being overly focused on security. An idol is anything that is given a place in our heart that rightly belongs to God. Fear of man relates to the idol of caring more about what people think about us than what God thinks.
This explains why some people are more prone to social anxiety than others. A person may have all the makings of someone whom society would consider unpopular or unsuccessful, and yet seem less affected by others’ opinion than someone who has admirable qualities, but fears man as one of their primary idols. An important part of overcoming social anxiety is working through this heart issue with a counselor root the idol out by replacing it with a fear of God.
Social anxiety is a debilitating condition that holds people back from reaching their potential and developing relationships in which they can grow and thrive and helps others do the same. The good news is that, with the right help and support, and commitment to meditating on the powerful word of God, it can be overcome – either entirely, or substantially – to the point where most a person’s social interactions are stress-free.
How wonderful it will one day be when we are in heaven, and all our anxieties and disorders are behind us and we can be who we were made to be in complete freedom!
“River in the Wilderness”, Courtesy of Matthew Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Misty Lake”, Courtesy of Aaron Burden, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Country Road”, Courtesy of Evgeni Tcherkasski, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Leafless Tree”, Courtesy of Luke Richardson, Unsplash.com, CC0 License