When social anxiety is overwhelming for kids
Nakita: Dr. Lockhart, thinking about this episode, what do you do when you feel an emotion that feels uneasy or unsettling?
Ann-Louise: Ah, that's such a great question. You know, I start by taking a break like I did today. I got outside and nature ate some good food and I listened to a comedian while I was out there.
What about you? What do you do when you have uncomfortable feelings?
Nakita: Mm, that's a good question. You know, sometimes I try to calm myself down with breathing exercises, and I sit alone in a corner to calm myself before going back to what I was doing.
So we're going to discuss one of the uneasy feelings people experience today. Are you ready?
Ann-Louise: I sure am.
Nakita: I think it's time we heard from Grace, from Portland, Oregon, who has a story to share about feeling a different kind of anxiety.
Grace is 14 years old. Let's listen to her story:
My name is Grace. I am 14 years old, and I live in Portland, Oregon. I live with my step-dad and my mom with my step-sister, my half-brother and my three biological siblings.
So, okay. Today in the car on my way to Youth Group I was feeling pretty nervous. I was having some social anxiety and my stepsister's godmother was in the car with me and she's a therapist. So she gave me a pretty good tip, to focus on how I had [dealt] with this same moment of anxiety the time before going to my youth group, because I feel this social anxiety [happening] quite often. And she told me just how relieved I [was] or what I felt when I got there. Not when I was feeling anxious in the moment.
Well, when I show up to Youth Group, I see all of my friends and that's when I'm like, this is my place. I feel good. I feel calm. I want to laugh and hang out with my friends, have fun, talk to people. But I think it's beforehand, I'm overthinking everything. Like maybe I'm going to say the wrong thing, or someone's gonna look at me and be like, “Ooh, I don't want to talk to her” and I think that's when I get most anxious, but when I show up, I feel pretty good.
Yeah. So the week before, I was in the car with my step-dad and he was taking me to Youth Group and I was feeling really anxious and he told me, ‘It's okay. Calm down. You're going to be good.’ And then as soon as I showed up there, everything was good and he was right. Yeah. You did. You were like, it's okay. You gotta be calm.
Nakita: Thanks Grace for telling us about how anxious you were when you were heading out to meet your friends at Youth Group.
It’s always great to open up about your feelings to people you trust in your life, even when it doesn’t feel comfortable.
Ann-Louise: I agree, Nakita, because I think it takes so much confidence and bravery to share our stories. Being vulnerable and open with others makes it okay to talk about feelings and emotions.
Because we all have them and it's okay to talk about them because we all feel them.
Nakita: I thought it was so great that you got a chance to talk to your stepsister’s godmother about social anxiety and got a helpful tip to manage it too.
Ann-Louise: Thank you so much, Grace. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and being so brave to share with so many others. When people feel socially anxious they overthink things and think people will judge them. They often expect the worst possible situation. Sometimes you even feel that anxiety in your stomach, your head, or your back. You know, Nakita, lots of people feel anxious about what other people might be thinking about them.
You know, as a kid, you're still learning about feelings and your brain is learning about what to do when you feel them. It's a lot to learn.
Nakita: That’s too true. Even grownups just like me are still figuring out and learning about what to do when big or small feelings happen. Growing up doesn't mean it automatically gets easier.
Oh, Dr.Lockhart, I'm wondering if there are other names used to describe the feelings connected to social anxiety?
Ann-Louise: Absolutely. Let's first define social anxiety. Social anxiety is when you think other people will judge or make fun of you, you're afraid they'll judge the way you dress, speak or behave. Sometimes if the social anxiety is really big, we may want to run away, hide or escape in some way, we may even begin to avoid doing things with other people. Now, there are words we can use to describe the emotion of feeling socially anxious. And these are called synonym words, such as shy, embarrassed, shame, flustered, worried, isolated, or nervous.
Nakita: Hmm. Now, is there ever a time when it’s okay to feel socially anxious or is it a bad thing?
Ann-Louise: You know, there are times when our brain is telling us that someone or a group of people are unsafe, so the feeling of social anxiety is actually a warning system getting us to pay attention to our gut. Our gut is that uneasy feeling we get in our stomach or in our brain. Our brain wants us to pay attention to that, because it’s okay to develop our ‘spidey sense’ about other people and situations. If it can keep Spider-Man safe, then it can keep us safe too!
Nakita: Dr. Lockhart, thank you so much for sharing that. I think it's important to remember that it's okay to know that what's happening is a natural response when we're feeling socially anxious. You know, I remember feeling socially anxious when I moved from Toronto to Florida in middle school. It helps when I got involved with my school activities and made friends at my own pace, and when it came time to listen to my spidey sense, I made sure I was only doing things I was comfortable doing.
Ann-Louise: That does sound unsettling and uncomfortable, but it feels great to know that we can tap into how we're feeling.
You know, I remember feeling socially anxious when I went to. And it was a huge school. And I left a one that was super small and I felt really uncomfortable because I didn't know anybody. And I felt people were looking at me and judging me. And that felt really, really uncomfortable.
Nakita: Dr. Lockhart, before we wrap up, are there any tools for social anxiety that you think would help our listeners and even the grownups?
Ann-Louise: Absolutely Nakita. I have a quick reminder and two really helpful tools and tips.
Always remember your feelings are not your enemy. Your feelings give you messages about other people and the world around you. So just embrace those feelings. Even the uncomfortable ones. I know it’s hard, but this is an important part of the process. Part of growing and developing means we sometimes have to push ourselves to do things that are hard.
First tip. When you start to feel like people are judging you, ask yourself, “Does their opinion of me really matter? Why does it matter? Why shouldn’t it matter? Is it possible that those people feel just as uncomfortable as I do, even if they don’t show it on the surface?”
Second tip. Believe in and trust yourself. Your existence matters even if no one else notices or appreciates it. You are valuable simply because you exist. You don’t have to do or be anything more than you are. You are amazing. Without question. Period.