‘Social anxiety is not a sign of inferiority’: psychologist on how this mental health condition affects teens, when to get help

  • An expert explains common symptoms of this condition, debunks misconceptions and shares how exposure therapy can be a useful treatment
  • Every week, Talking Points gives you a worksheet to practise your reading comprehension with questions and exercises about the story we’ve written
Doris Wai |

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Social anxiety is characterised by a disproportionate fear of what can go wrong in social situations. Photo: Shutterstock

We all know the feeling of being jittery when meeting someone for the first time, having sweaty palms before a presentation, or being at a loss for words when called on to answer a question in class.

For most people, this nervousness can usually be managed with practice, but Ken Fung, a clinical psychologist at Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre in Hong Kong, sheds light on why teens with social anxiety can find these situations to be too much to handle.

According to Fung, social anxiety disorder, also referred to as social phobia, is an intense, out-of-proportion fear of being scrutinised by others in a social situation.

Ken Fung is a clinical psychologist at Jadis Blurton Family Development Centre in Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

For teens with this condition, it can feel especially challenging as this is when they are beginning to develop their self-image and build their social lives.

“Not surprisingly, it can have an adverse impact on their life in many areas, including making new friends, striking up conversations with strangers, or even interactions with classmates,” Fung said.

People with this condition worry excessively about future social situations and frequently avoid them for fear of being embarrassed. This is because they believe they will be judged and seen as incompetent.

Fung added that while some people could turn their nervousness into a source of motivation, for those with social anxiety disorder, their fear could feel like a threat.

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The condition is commonly associated with blushing, sweaty palms, uncontrollable trembling, and stumbling over one’s words. Some might experience heart palpitations or sudden urges to go to the toilet. Another symptom is tunnel vision in which people can only see what they are looking directly at, heightening the feeling of the world closing in.

In the classroom context, the psychologist said that teens with social anxiety disorder could be excessively conscious about negative feedback from peers and may struggle with presentations.

With online learning, these students might still struggle when they need to turn on their cameras, type responses in group chats or turn on their microphones to answer questions.

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Fung also addressed a few misconceptions about social anxiety disorder – the most common being that all introverts have the condition.

“Both extroverts and introverts can ... feel judged at times. But those who do not have social anxiety disorder are able to manage such feelings, and most importantly, this does not affect their day-to-day life,” Fung emphasised. Those without the condition are more likely to learn how to work around their feelings rather than avoid uncomfortable situations altogether.

Another myth is that social anxiety looks the same for everyone – being shy or nervous in front of new people.

“Many people equate being socially anxious to being unable to interact with lots of strangers in a public scenario – when, in fact, it can differ from one person to another,” Fung said.

Zoom classes are already challenging enough without the added stress of having social anxiety. Photo: Shutterstock

He drew an example of how some people with social anxiety disorder could be perfectly fine hanging out with a group of strangers, yet when they meet people of a different gender, they might have a disproportionate fear of what could go wrong.

“People who suffer from this condition are either already aware of what they are feeling or suspect themselves of having social anxiety,” the psychologist pointed out.

For those unsure about whether they might be experiencing this condition, Fung posed three questions to help determine if the feeling could be more than just general unease.

Are there specific social situations where you experience intense anxiety? Does that anxiety, fear or avoidance last for at least six months? Does your response to it negatively affect your daily life?

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If you answered yes to all three questions, Fung recommended seeking a professional therapist for help.

“The thing about social anxiety disorder is that patients often delay treatment,” Fung said, adding that it usually occurred in early adolescence.

He cited figures from Hong Kong’s Department of Health that showed close to 7.5 per cent of individuals with social anxiety disorder started experiencing it between three and eight years old.

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“Social anxiety disorder ... is often treatable with exposure therapy,” he stressed.

Exposure therapy introduces patients to their source of fear in a safe environment to help them overcome it. This form of treatment teaches the brain that the perceived anxiety is much scarier than reality. Combined with relaxation techniques, this could lessen one’s physiological symptoms and decrease anxiety.

“It is important to know that these seemingly uncontrollable anxious feelings are not the end of the world, and that social anxiety disorder is not a sign of inferiority,” he emphasised. “With proper treatment, you can snap out of the anxiety cycle.”

Click here to download a printable worksheet with questions and exercises about this story. Answers are on the second page of the document.

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