Fall Season Social Anxiety
As we enter into the fall season, households across America start packing up their summer wear. And, they start pulling out fall clothing and warm blankets, and switching the thermostat from air conditioning to heating. For many Americans, however, fall means an emotional change as well. In fact, the fall season is well known for a rise in social anxiety.
With the fall, many people also start to experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which comes and goes with the seasons. Starting in the fall and often going away in the spring or summer, SAD is a type of depression that comes with the cooling of seasons and the diminished presence of the sun. Further, fall is the season of “cuffing.” While many people have never heard of cuffing season, it’s a real thing and happens when people – usually teenagers – start desiring a need for serious relationships to help get them through the cold and dark season ahead.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is a fear of social situations that involve interaction with other people. Though it isn’t abnormal to feel nervous in certain social settings, it is unusual for that nervousness to turn into something more, causing even everyday interactions to become difficult. Those who suffer from social anxiety may feel fear, self-consciousness, and embarrassment, and that they may be under scrutiny from others.
With social anxiety disorder, the anxiety and related fear can turn into avoidance that can be disrupting to one’s life and how they get through their day. This anxiety can turn into stress which can have very negative consequences on work, school, and additional activities and interests.
Symptoms of social anxiety
Though being shy or uncomfortable in certain settings doesn’t necessarily mean that your teen might have social anxiety disorder, it is important that parents keep their eyes and ears open in event that there is something more serious going on. Comfort levels can vary based on personality traits and life experiences and some people are simply more reserved than others.
As a contrast to nervousness that is typical in usual situations, social anxiety can lead to avoidance of even the most general of activities. Social anxiety tends to begin on the early to mid-teen though it can definitely start younger, even in very young children. Even a healthy adult can begin to experience social anxiety, especially if they have been through a life-changing event.
Emotional and behavioral symptoms
Typical symptoms and indicators of social anxiety disorder include the following:
- Fear of being judged in social situations
- Concerns that you will embarrass or humiliate yourself
- An irrational and intense fear of interacting with or otherwise engaging with strangers
- Fear that you will appear anxious to others or that they will notice your anxiousness
- Concern that otherwise normal symptoms of nervousness will be overly evident to others – blushing, sweating, a shaky voice, physical trembling, etc.
- Avoiding certain activities or speaking to others because you will become embarrassed
- Avoiding incidences where you could become the center of attention
- Experiencing anxiety or heightened and concerning anticipation of an upcoming event or activity
- Going through a social situation with fear or anxiety that does not dissipate as the activity goes on (or the anxiety gets worse)
- Analyzing your behavior or performance after a social setting and spending an unusual amount of time reviewing your flaws
- Anticipating the worst possible outcome from a social interaction
In addition to emotional and behavioral symptoms, it is common for those with social anxiety disorders to present with physical symptoms as well.
- Fast heartbeat
- Body trembling
- Upset stomach or nausea
- Difficulty catching your breath
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Feelings that you have lost all thought or your mind is blank
- Tension in muscles
Though social anxiety can affect anyone, and everyone is more susceptible to anxiety that comes with the changing of the seasons and seasonal affective disorder, there are some characteristics that increase likelihood.
Anxiety disorder does often run in families and it isn’t clear entirely as to how much of this is due to genetic or learned behaviors from other family members. Further, the amygdala can often play a role in fear response. Those with an overactive amygdala are more likely to have a heightened response to fear, and thus can experience an increase in anxiety when confronted with social situations.
The environment is also a key factor as some people may develop social anxiety as part of the aftermath of an unpleasant or embarrassing situation. There may also be a link between social anxiety disorder and those whose parents exhibit anxious behaviors in social settings. Parents who are overly controlling or protective of their children can also inadvertently create anxiety in their children.
- Your teen is far more likely to develop social anxiety disorder if you, your spouse, or your other children have the affliction.
- Children who have been subject to bullying (whether it be live or cyber), teasing, rejections, ridicule, or humiliation are far more likely to experience social anxiety disorder. In fact, those negative events in life such as family conflict, trauma, or abuse, are often a leading cause.
- Children who are timid or shy, or relatively withdrawn when faced with new situations or people show a greater risk towards social anxiety disorder.
- Facial deformity, stuttering, Parkinson’s related tremors, or other bodily disfigurement can draw attention to your teen, and that unwanted attention can be a trigger for social anxiety disorder.
In most cases, the symptoms of social anxiety disorder begin the teenage years. But, this is not to say that those who need to give a speech in public or present a work presentation may not experience similar triggers later in life.
The concept of “cuffing”
As the winter holidays approach and families start to make plans for who is going where and bringing what, feelings of isolation can begin to set in for those that are not in relationships. Even for teenagers who are experimenting with early relationships and dating can feel the effects of the season. With the weather change from summer to fall and then into winter, there is a natural longing in many people to find someone to spend time with during the colder and darker season.
And even for teenagers, it isn’t uncommon for aunts and uncles to inquire about relationship status at family get-togethers. This can create for further discontent and anxiety in teenagers that might already be experiencing signs of social anxiety as well as seasonal affective disorder.
But what exactly is cuffing? The concept is best-explained by a few examples. For instance, in most dating situations that take place during the spring or summer, it can take quite a bit of time before you start talking about who is going where for the holidays, or talking about activities that might be months away. But in a cuffing situation, there is a bit of desperation to lock-down plans with a partner. The sense of urgency to meet can take over as people begin to feel anxiety that they don’t have time to wait.
Cuffers tend to make lots of plans in the fall and winter with you, but then go a bit silent, or their interactions are far less frequent in the spring and summer. Another sign of cuffing is that they tend to make a lot of plans to stay in and watch movies curled up in a blanket, or even curled up by the fireplace. While curling up by the fire or under a blanket might feel romantic, in many cases when it happens at this time of year, it is more about finding a secure and warm place with someone to keep the company, rather than genuinely wanting to spend time with the other.
This cuffing behavior can be extremely detrimental when it occurs with someone who is susceptible to social anxiety disorder and is already beginning to feel down from the season. The cuffing behavior of allegedly getting serious so fast and agreeing to activities that are less-social in nature and exclusively indoors work against the need for the person to be out with others and getting as much fresh air (and daylight) as humanly possible.
Social anxiety can be even more difficult to manage during the fall season. As the weather gets cooler and cooler, and especially as we lose the sun earlier and earlier in the day, those with social anxiety are far more likely to retreat within themselves. This means that they will spend less and less time interacting with others and will get less exposure to the outdoors. Even in the fall and winter and those colder months, outdoor exposure is critical to help us maintain our health.
Additionally, there are other complications that parents should be aware of, as it pertains to social anxiety disorder:
- Lack of or low self-esteem
- Difficulties with assertiveness
- Negative talk about ones-self
- Extreme sensitivity to criticism
- Poor social skills or an overall lack of social skills and etiquette
- Awkward or challenged social relationships
- Poor academic performance
- Substance abuse issues including alcohol or illegal drugs
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts to take one’s life
Preventing social anxiety disorder
Though it can’t be predicted as to who will develop a social anxiety disorder, there are steps that can be taken to lessen the risks of the disorder worsening. The first step is to be aware of symptoms or signs, and to talk to your teenager openly about how they are feeling. Parents often want to react harshly or even nonchalantly when their teen brings them concerns, especially when those concerns seem like “nothing” in the eyes of the parent. Providing a safe and comfortable space for teens to talk with their parents about their concerns and anxieties is a critical part of the coping process.
But, if your teen is showing signs of anxiousness, it can also be helpful to reach out for help. As with most mental health disorders, treatment of a disorder generally doesn’t work when left to the family. In most cases, third party help is needed. And, the longer you wait before getting help for your teen, the worse the affliction can become.
Your teen might also benefit from keeping a journal. This is an excellent way to make note of activities that have taken place during the day and the various emotions and feelings that they experienced with those activities. If a certain experience made them feel happy, they should note that in the journal. And just as important if not more so, is that any activities that made them feel sad, stressed, or angry, should be recorded too. Though this journal can be used for personal purposes, teens who are willing to share their inputs with their parent or a trained therapist will be able to work through the development of coping mechanisms much better, as the adult will have a much clearer understanding of the teen’s range of emotions.
Anxiety can also be managed by reviewing and prioritizing the various daily obligations and requirements that are expected of your teen. Careful management of time and energy is critical to maintaining a work-life balance, or an academics and life balance. With so many demands on today’s teens such as keeping grades up, managing part-time jobs, preparing for college applications, etc., it can be a drain and can significantly add to stress levels.
When teens are provided with the proper resources and support and are given the opportunity to develop coping skills early on, they will be far more likely able to overcome the disorder. Being taught the skills to manage those fears and anxieties that come with the disorder can be the difference between the ability to get through a social situation, or run to the bedroom and hide under the covers. With additional exposure to social situations and the ability to practice coping strategies, social situations can feel more natural, become comfortable, and be achievable.
Does your teenager need help to manage their social anxiety during the fall? Reach out to Hillcrest to find out how our facility’s renowned residential treatment can help them navigate this seriously stressful season.