If anxiety derails your attempts to share and connect with others online, there are steps you can take to stay in the loop
by Emma Warnock-Parkes
Illustration by Natsumi Chikayasu
is a clinical psychologist and accredited therapist working as a senior fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford and at King’s College London.
Edited by Lucy Foulkes
Social media has many appealing qualities. You can control what you share, socialise when you choose, and delete or leave out the parts of yourself you don’t like. But for people who are socially anxious, interacting online can be fraught with challenges, making them feel as self-conscious as they would face to face. As Katie, a 20-year-old student having treatment in our clinic told me: ‘When I last posted, which I rarely do, I felt like literally everybody was looking at me … even though no one can see me.’
Social anxiety is a common mental health problem that typically starts in adolescence, and is characterised by a fear of being judged by others. Socially anxious people have frequent thoughts such as: ‘I won’t have anything to say,’ ‘I’m coming across as boring’ or ‘People think I’m stupid.’ They’re also likely to have a negative and distorted image of how they look in social situations, such as picturing themselves blushing bright red or shaking like a leaf.
These fears affect how people with social anxiety behave, often causing them to hold back and hide their true selves from others. This then adds fuel to their anxious thoughts – making them even more worried that people will view them as being boring or quiet. For some, the anxiety is so severe that they avoid social situations altogether.
As a clinical psychologist, I see lots of people with social anxiety disorder – a mental health condition characterised by severe social anxiety, which affects one in around 20 people at some point in their lives. At our clinic at the University of Oxford, we’ve found that social media throws up many problems for these individuals, as all their offline fears get transferred into the online world. For example, people worry that a Tweet will offend others or that a WhatsApp message will come across as boring. This changes the way they use social media, for example by holding back and rarely sharing anything about themselves.
Katie described spending much of her day overthinking what to post online. If she did share something, she worried about the response she might receive. Much like her face-to-face interactions, she was plagued by fears about what people were thinking of her. There were difficulties with video chats too: when using FaceTime or Zoom, she had a distorted image of herself as looking blank or blushing. In reality, what others saw was simply Katie speaking, her slight blush hardly noticed.
These are fleeting concerns that many of us will have at some point when we interact online. However, for people with more debilitating social anxiety, they can become all-consuming.
If you’re socially anxious, the solution is not to avoid social media and online communication altogether. The cost would be too great – social plans are often made online, and being well-connected on the internet is vital to many careers. Social sites and apps have the capacity to make us laugh, to share a special moment or occasion with loved ones, and to forge new connections and relationships. In 2020 more than ever, being online is an integral part of our social world. If you feel too anxious to participate, the risk is that you might become withdrawn and lonely, right at a time when you need connection the most.
Instead, you might benefit from support and guidance about the best way to use social media. Even if you don’t struggle with anxiety in your face-to-face social interactions, you might find that anxiety online is preventing you from sharing more of yourself or making positive and deeper connections with others. If you’d like to make social media less stressful, here are a few key practical tips, based on cognitive behavioural techniques recommended for people with social anxiety.
Remember that your social media post is just one of many
Some aspects of communication are distinctive online, and this might increase social anxiety. One such aspect is the culture of shares and ‘Likes’. When you post something and wait to see how many hearts or thumbs-up it receives, it can feel as though a specific number is being placed on your popularity or worth. On top of this, the number is public, so if you share something that others seemingly don’t like, there’s an open record of it for everyone to see.
If you find yourself staring at something you just posted and wondering why nobody has ‘Liked’ it, or worrying that what you wrote was stupid, try to think about it differently. There are lots of reasons why people might not have responded to your post, other than them criticising you. They might have simply missed it or been distracted. Try thinking about the sheer volume of posts you’ve seen that day – hundreds, maybe even thousands. If you find you’re being hard on yourself, remember that others are also quickly scrolling through a huge volume of content.
Your message, post or photo might seem like it’s headline news when you’re feeling self-conscious but, in reality, others have most likely moved on to the next post, message or part of their day. This is because there’s so much else going on, not because there was anything wrong with your post. Remember that your self-critical thoughts are just thoughts, not what others are thinking.
Switch your focus of attention
Research shows that social anxiety comes with being self-focused – being ‘lost in your head’. So rather than fully attending to the conversation at hand, people who are socially anxious will often focus on themselves and monitor how they’re coming across. And they frequently assume the worst: socially anxious people are more likely to have negative thoughts about how they’re coming across on social media, such as ‘I’m boring.’ They’re also more likely to interpret ambiguous comments that other people make on Facebook in a negative way, for example.
When chatting to someone online, focus as much as possible on the other person. Tune in to others and actively listen rather than thinking about what you look or sound like. When on a video call, minimise or hide your own video image; this will help you focus more on the conversation, rather than repeatedly looking at yourself. The chances are that you come across much better than you think you do, and focusing on yourself will make you feel only more anxious.
Similarly, on social media apps, try to focus more on other people’s content than your own. Instead of checking how many people have liked or watched your post, try to get lost in enjoying what is out there. Seek out people and posts that make you happy, and try to view other people’s posts in a positive light.
Don’t compare yourself with others
When looking at social media, it’s easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself with others – what they look like, the fun they seem to be having, or how popular they seem to be. But research shows that such ‘upward social comparisons’ – when you think others have better lives than you – can have a detrimental impact on self-esteem, so it’s a habit worth avoiding if you can. In reality, social media rarely gives us a true glimpse into somebody else’s life. It can seem as though all other people do is go out and have fun, when in fact most of their week has been spent on the sofa watching Netflix. Your friends might always appear to have perfect make-up and clothes, but none of us look like a carefully airbrushed selfie 24/7.
A good friend of mine is an interior designer and presents a perfect home on Instagram, but in reality his home is as littered with children’s toys and crumbs as mine. Another friend tends to post how in love she is with her wife, when I know that they are in the middle of a three-day bust-up. A number of people have shared that they posted happy photos of themselves when in fact they were having a really hard time.
If you find yourself spending too much time comparing yourself with others, stop and recognise what you’re doing. Ask yourself: is this helping me? Is this a fair comparison? Am I seeing the whole picture of this person’s life or looking through a tiny airbrushed window? Then try, if you can, to refocus your attention. You could try thinking more realistically about the post, or seek out other content, or try doing something else away from social media.
Participate more, without overthinking
If you find negative thoughts are holding you back from taking part in social media at all, ask yourself: ‘What would I tell friends who had the same concern?’ You’d probably encourage them to just give it a go – that their worries about being badly received most likely won’t come true. The same applies to you.
It’s easy to just scroll endlessly through social media: not posting anything, ignoring messages, and feeling anxious that anything you do will be criticised. But there’s evidence that this passive approach to social media can be related to higher levels of depression and anxiety symptoms. Rather than passively scrolling, try to take part and share a little more of yourself.
If you sit quietly during group chats, join in a bit more. If you never post anything on social media, try sharing something, even if this is just somebody else’s post to start with. If you haven’t reached out to someone else online in some time, send a message to find out how that person is getting on. When doing so, try not to overly prepare what you say or censor yourself too much. You might be surprised to discover that people will react better than you think when you’re just being yourself.
Once you’ve reached out or shared a little more, try not to monitor the response it gets, or place too much importance on it. Move forward and focus on a different activity. Posting on social media when you aren’t used to doing it can feel like standing on a busy street yelling through a megaphone. In reality, it’s more like whispering something towards a loud and talkative crowd.
To become less self-focused online, you can train your attention to be more focused on others. Imagine there is a muscle in your brain that helps you switch your focus of attention, and that this muscle needs strengthening to help you feel more socially at ease. A technique called attention training helps people build up their attention-switching skills. It’s often taught in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) for social anxiety as it leads to reductions in anxiety and and might therefore help people enjoy their social interactions more.
Here are a few brief attention-training exercises that many people benefit from that can reduce feelings of anxiety. Spend a few minutes on your own each day practising some of the following:
Such small practices can help you get better at moving your attention to something external, rather than being stuck on yourself. The next time you’re interacting online or face to face, try to notice if you’re thinking about how you’re coming across, and switch your focus of attention back to the other person and the interaction.
If anxiety in social situations – online or offline – is causing you significant distress or affecting your day-to-day life, you should speak to a mental health professional. Treatment can be life-changing, as it was for Katie, who describes her experience of CBT:
My life has changed in every way. You will be shocked at how much lighter you become once [social anxiety] is out of your head, and how easy it becomes to exist in the world. You might think now you are a total weirdo and you cannot exist in the world like other people, but you absolutely can … and it’s brilliant.
Ellen Hendriksen is a US clinical psychologist who specialises in social anxiety. She provides a number of free resources for overcoming social anxiety on her website, including a free seven-day course with daily exercises.
Hendriksen has also recorded numerous podcasts on social anxiety, such as this one on ‘How to Rise Above Social Anxiety’ recorded by the Good Life Project, an online community dedicating to living well.
This NHS self-help guide for people who experience social anxiety, written by the UK clinical psychologists Lesley Maunder and Lorna Cameron, describes lots of self-help exercises to try.
The following books might prove useful for learning more about social anxiety disorder: