Social Anxiety: Ways to Hope When You Feel Alone
Social anxiety and the church
According to the World Health Organization, 12% of the US population has experienced social anxiety disorder. So you’ve probably met many people with social anxiety without realizing.
When we’re called to be in relationship with God we’re also called to belong to a local church. So social anxiety can be a painful trial for many Christians.
Many become tired of persevering, as their attendance becomes more and more irregular, until finally, they don’t come at all.
I’ve attended a small-to-medium sized church (50–70 people) for the last 8 years. Often when the service ends, I look out hoping to see a friendly face.
But the smiling faces are mostly looking elsewhere. Those glancing in my direction feel like they are looking through me.
The natural tendency when people leave our group is to find explanations like: “It wasn’t our fault, they never really gave their all,” or “attending church was never enough of a priority for them”.
Jesus was concerned even with the one sheep lost out of a hundred. So this article is for you if you’re running out of reasons to persevere with your church. There are good reasons to hope.
But this is also an article for all church members.
Statistically, almost every church will have people with social anxiety attending.
Jesus cared about the 1% who were heading off the path, social anxiety is a lot more common than that.
What is social anxiety?
I’ve experienced social anxiety all my life. People with social anxiety fear that once their true selves are exposed others will reject them.
So there’s no surprise that church is often a challenge for me. As a Christian, I know attending and serving the local church is important.
But for me, it feels like there is only one way this can go. People will see my lack of social skills and reject me, and I will be an outcast even in God’s church.
These fears lead to two reactions
First, avoidance. If I will be exposed as incompetent, my only escape is to stop going to church. Yet I want to obey God’s will.
Leaving the church becomes a nuclear option. As I struggle to persevere, my finger hovers over the button. The promise of relief, from being a stranger in a place that should be home, makes my heart race.
But I also recognize that turning my back on the church, and then ultimately God, will have devastating consequences.
Second, even if I manage to keep attending church there is another challenge. People with social anxiety often use ‘safety behaviours’ to protect them from shame.
For example, if I don’t take the initiative to speak to anyone, I’m fairly safe from people discovering my lack of social skills. But I also guarantee that I will never be known by anyone in the church.
People with mental health problems have often experienced stigma in their churches. But this is improving.
Many excellent Christian books help us to deal with depression or worry. The Gospel Coalition and other similar organizations often include articles on these topics.
Social anxiety is the most prevalent anxiety disorder. Only depression and alcohol dependence are more common mental disorders. But this is not immediately obvious to people.
I can think of dozens of Christian books or articles on worry. Social anxiety is twice as common as excessive worry — psychiatrists’ call this generalized anxiety disorder. Yet, there are no Christian books on social anxiety.
Social anxiety remains taboo. I’m not sure why, but some possibilities are:
- Most people have times of low mood or worry. So it’s easier to empathize with those who experience these problems — all be it at a much greater intensity.
- Feeling socially awkward is a developmental phase we all go through. But most people overcome this, we learn the social skills needed to function in life and church. So, why can’t others do the same? They must be inferior somehow. They must not be serious about their faith.
Lack of understanding
Your pastor may have learned about depression or worry from seminary or books. But most probably they will know very little about social anxiety.
I once shared with a pastor the difficulties I have with social anxiety. I had hoped he’d try and understand my experiences of church.
Instead, I learned that if only I were a better Christian, my troubles would be over. I just needed to read my Bible and pray. God would make me more mature.
He meant well, I am of no doubt. But, on the rare occasions that people with social anxiety share their experiences, they learn perhaps they shouldn’t have.
I’ll now move onto what has helped.
Jesus and the outsider
People with social anxiety are often outsiders in their church. I love the passage where Jesus is about to heal the synagogue ruler’s daughter (Mark 5: 21–43). She is close to death. In desperation, Jairus (the father) begs Jesus to heal her.
You can hear the disciples’ excitement. Jairus is a man of influence. But after a while, the disciples become exasperated at Jesus, as he stops to ask who touched his robes.
What is Jesus doing? Doesn’t he know it’s an emergency? Doesn’t he know Jairus is an important man?
Fittingly, we don’t know the name of the woman who steps forward. She was hoping to go unnoticed.
She had experienced chronic bleeding for 12 years, ceremonially unclean all that time and separated from the people of God.
She tells her story, of the failed medical procedures, losing all her money, and the isolation. The woman’s touch has made Jesus ‘unclean’.
How will he respond? Will this all end in humiliation for the woman? With tenderness, he responds as family ‘Daughter, your faith has healed you’.
How many of our church leaders would have stopped for this woman? I thank God that Jesus was not too busy.
I thank God that the Creator of the universe stopped to tell her, and those like her, there was no need to hide anymore.
He noticed her — even when no one else did. She was now, forevermore, accepted and made clean.
On the cross He would experience her shame at first hand, He knew what it was like to be an outcast mocked by the crowds. That was the reason He had come to earth.
Treasure those who stick by you
Few church members understand my social anxiety. Those who try, often lose patience. They wait a while in hope for the miracle deliverance. But when that fails to emerge, they’re gone.
There are a faithful few that continue to love and care — no matter what my ups and downs or if I’ve had another significant failure. They are a precious reminder of Jesus.
I would not have persevered at church without them. I owe my walk with Jesus to them.
Psychological and drug therapy
I have received lots of different types of psychological therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and Christian counselling. They have all been helpful in different ways.
I have to admit feeling a little reluctant using ‘secular’ therapy as a Christian. But there is nothing about CBT that remotely contradicts the Bible.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the UK, CBT is the most effective treatment for social anxiety disorder.
An estimated 40% of people receiving CBT will no longer have social anxiety disorder after treatment. Many more will experience less anxiety than they did before treatment.
NICE also found that antidepressants improve social anxiety. In particular, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
Keeping on the Way
Pilgrim’s Progress, despite its archaic English, encourages me. Christian’s often faltering odyssey to the Celestial City is more realistic than we’d like.
Sometimes his trials take him veering off the Way, but with help, he somehow gets back. That sums up my attempts to navigate social anxiety.
I have times of great failure, where the church and the world appear like a dark dungeon of despair.
Like a ghost in a film, I call out to people I know but they cannot see or hear me. It feels like they exist in a realm completely separate from me.
Yet with God’s help, I get back on the path, I have not been fully healed, but His grace will keep me till I reach home.
Do you have any experiences of overcoming social anxiety at church? What helped most? Or have you had experience helping people with social anxiety settle in church?