How Can I Cope with Social Anxiety Disorder at Work?

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Have a specific and clear goal when interacting with people to help reduce social anxiety. Getty / Moodboard

In this article, Montreal clinical psychologist Danny Gagnon answers my questions about how individuals can cope with social anxiety at work.

Q: What kinds of issues can social anxiety cause in terms of a person's work/career?

Dr. Gagnon: There are two main ways that social anxiety (at a level that causes distress to the person) can cause a problem: 1) interpersonally and 2) in terms of one’s career.

Firstly, individuals with social anxiety may find it hard to interact with peers due to the associated symptoms of anxiety they feel. They may keep to themselves, or not go out for lunch or other social outings with colleagues. They may be excessively worried about being judged by colleagues or doing something embarrassing.

Due to this effect on interpersonal relationships, social anxiety may play a significant role in career success. In terms of progressing in their career and obtaining promotions, the person will likely not display behaviors that show they are motivated, that they are confident and want to progress.

Classic examples I have come across include: not talking or asking questions during team meetings, not showing initiative in terms of taking on new challenges that show the person is confident, and not interacting/networking with colleagues to show they are interested in progressing.

Q: How does a person know if their feelings are normal work jitters (e.g., about interviews, meetings, presentations) or the sign of an anxiety disorder?

Dr. Gagnon: It is normal for all of us to feel some anxiety in these situations, which is generally fine as it can motivate us to prepare ourselves so we perform in the best way we can.

In terms of social anxiety developing into a problem, I would look at two main criterion.

The first is if there are any avoidance behaviors. If the person continually avoids these situations due to a fear of being judged or of doing something embarrassing, this would be a sign the anxiety is problematic. If someone continually avoids interviews, as an example, then they would have no employment history.

A second factor would be the level of distress that is experienced. As mentioned, some anxiety is quite normal during these situations. However, if anxiety is distressing despite not avoiding any situations, we would consider that the social anxiety is problematic.

In summary, it is normal to be anxious in these social situations. When we evaluate whether the anxiety is problematic, avoidance and a distressing level of anxiety are indicators that this may be the case. 

Q: How can therapy help a person with social anxiety cope with anxiety at work?

I use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people with social anxiety.

CBT is an empirically-validated treatment for many psychological problems. It involves showing people how their feelings are the product of their thoughts and behaviors. With CBT, we provide practical ways for people to change their thoughts and behaviors to change their anxiety.

We have a fairly good model of what maintains social anxiety. Some cognitive factors involve explaining to individuals what maintains the anxiety, making sure they have a specific and clear goal when they interact with people (and not the idea that they have to be "intelligent," for example), learning to focus outwards and be less in their minds while interacting with people, and changing any negative thoughts about how they perceive themselves or think they are being perceived.

Then, we have them gradually practice these changes in thinking in real social situations they are avoiding, or that are distressing, but in a gradual step-by-step fashion called exposure.

Other ways to manage anxiety can be discussed, as well as interventions from other proven strategies, such as mindfulness meditation or acceptance and commitment therapy.

Q: Should a person with an anxiety disorder make others at work aware of the issue?

In my opinion, this would depend on two factors interacting, which are whether the person wants others to be aware of the problem as well as the context of the work. This should be discussed with a mental health practitioner as there are pros and cons to doing so.

For example, bringing up the topic in a management consulting role may not be the best thing to do, as the person would be meeting with high-level management, which involves a display of confidence.

However, in some positions this might be helpful. For example, I once had a client discuss his difficulties while working in a data entry role at a bank. It was important for the person to let the manager know, who was supportive. The person also discussed how they were feeling stressed at work rather than socially anxious.

Q: Are people with social anxiety better off doing certain types of work?

I think this depends on the person as I would not say they are better off in a certain type of work. If a person is happy in a role then I would consider this fine. However, if they are not and wish to change or be promoted, I think it is worth having them work on the social anxiety to achieve their work goal, as long as it is realistic.

About Danny Gagnon, Ph.D.

Danny Gagnon is a psychologist in Montreal who specializes in using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and other common psychological problems. For further information, you can consult his website at either www.MontrealCBTPsychologist.com or www.TherapyInMontreal.com.

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