“You should really sign up for the musical. You have such a good voice,” said a teenage girl to her friend.
Her friend nodded in agreement but said, “I don’t think I can. I just get too nervous even thinking about it.”
“But that is what you always say,” replied the girl. “You never take a chance or even do anything new.”
A lot of adolescents get anxious when asked to perform in front of others or even when meeting new people. Most people can push through that worry. However, some adolescents let the worry get the better of them as it becomes social anxiety.
These adolescents start focusing on how they might appear to others and become afraid of being embarrassed or criticized. The fear of embarrassment can become paralyzing and the mere thought of performing in public or meeting new people is enough to start a new wave of anxiety.
This fear of embarrassment can get to the point where adolescents actively avoid any public situation where they might be judged. This can be crippling and greatly interfere with adolescents’ day to day functioning.
Fortunately adolescents can do something to help lessen their social anxiety. They need to start by putting an end to avoiding things. Even though it can feel good in the short-term to avoid anxiety-provoking situations, it just makes the anxiety worsen over the long run. Typically the things that are being avoided, like giving a presentation in class, are not going to go away.
This does not mean it will be easy to stop avoiding anxiety-provoking situations. It will require adolescents to push themselves out of their comfort zone. Once adolescents start an activity like talking to new people, the anxiety tends to go away. Adolescents will often find that when they face their fears that the worst outcomes they imagined don’t happen.
Before facing an anxiety-provoking situation, it can be helpful to practice. For example, an adolescent could arrange to go with her friends to a movie and have a new person come along. This would allow the adolescent to be around her friends but still allow her to talk to someone new.
These small realistic goals can lead adolescents to become more comfortable when meeting new people in the future. Each time adolescents practice confronting their fears, the fears starts to lessen and adolescents expand their ability to handle them.
While gradually working on overcoming their fears, adolescents can also focus on managing their existing anxiety by relaxing. It is impossible to be anxious and relaxed at the same time. Therefore, engaging in activities like yoga, meditation, and exercise can help regulate and reduce anxiety levels.
In addition to relaxation, adolescents should enlist allies to help them overcome their social anxiety. Parents and friends can be a good outlet for adolescents to talk about what is worrying them. Sometimes just the act of talking about their fears out loud can reduce adolescents’ anxiety.
Social anxiety is unpleasant and can have a negative impact adolescents’ lives. It doesn’t have to be this way and with some gentle encouragement, adolescents can learn how to confront their fears and be able to open doors of opportunity that had previously been closed.
This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on December 7, 2014