Early spring is when many young adults and soon-to-be-grads begin the internship and job search. Networking, interviews, seminars and group projects on top of pleasing professors, parents and bosses can be stressful, even for a seasoned extrovert. Learning how to build professional relationships and entering the workforce require a set of skills that build on past efforts in the social world. But how do socially anxious young adults deal with these challenges?
Dr. John Walkup, Head, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Margaret C. Osterman Professor in Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, explains the realities of social anxiety and offers guidance on how to embrace social interactions with an open mind.
Young adults with social anxiety have a fear they will mess up or do something silly and that people will judge them. For many with social anxiety, their discomfort and self-consciousness has been a life-long challenge, as social anxiety often starts in childhood. Being shy as a child may not seem like such a big deal, but social demands increase dramatically in adolescence and young adulthood. What was once “okay” becomes a real psychological challenge.
Dr. Walkup stresses that today, there needs to be greater training for pediatricians and primary care physicians to recognize anxiety. This identification can help prevent future psychiatric problems for adolescents. During childhood, if anxiety is not tackled when symptoms emerge, impairments can arise due to avoidance coping and lack of parental control. In turn, an individual’s overall development may be impacted throughout adulthood, including the job search.
“Socially anxious people cope with their fear by avoiding social interactions or performance situations,” says Dr. Walkup. “Avoiding social situations offers temporary relief but overtime the lack of social experiences makes it difficult to develop social competence, confidence and the kinds of skills necessary for job interviews and overall adult development.”
Preparing for and practicing social interactions as much as possible is essential to build social competence and self-confidence. Dr. Walkup advises thinking of social interactions as a more of a theatrical performance.
“It is ironic, but a number of actors and actresses will describe themselves as having social anxiety,” he mentions. “They can act in a production without self-consciousness, but then struggle with the spontaneous social interactions that come with their fame. For people with social anxiety it can be helpful to really prepare before going for an interview and develop your ‘role in the play.’”
Interviewers often ask the same kinds of questions and are looking for a similar set of characteristics during an interview; study up and learn what is expected. People with social anxiety shouldn’t leave their ‘performance’ to chance but develop their interview persona, including: the answers to standard questions that will be asked and a list of questions that show you have thought about the job for which you are interviewing. This can all be done in advance; then practice, practice, practice, according to Dr. Walkup.
Some people will not be able to do this on their own; they need a coach or a therapist to help.
“For those who can’t do it on their own, it is important to engage in good treatment and understand that social fears and worries should not get in your way,” he says. “Through treatment, people learn that their self-consciousness is really exaggerated and by engaging in social interactions, one develops the capacity to tolerate social distress. Social exposure is scary if you’re socially anxious, but it is not as bad as you might think. It allows you to learn how to deal with people.”
When anxiety is left untreated or if treatment is delayed, this disorder can lead to potential long-term damage beyond the job search. Dr. Walkup notes people may experience negative emotional well-being, unhealthy coping patterns and harmful behaviors, including: suicidal thoughts, drug and alcohol abuse. When learning how to “adult,” these factors can hinder a socially anxious person’s emotional and cognitive well-being.
Group therapy is a valuable way to boost confidence because it allows people who are socially anxious to deeply invest in treatment approach that directly targets social challenges.
Medication treatment can also be helpful but mastering social interactions through engaging in social activities is key to conquering these fears and worries
“Confront social anxiety directly and seek professional help. It is best to go after the issues early on, then you will be set up for success,” emphasizes Dr. Walkup.