This article was written by BCC Counselor Lucy Ann Moll as part of our new series on Mental Health. In this series, our counselors hope to call churches and Christians to re-engage with the discussion and care for mental health struggles.
Ally called in sick again. No cold or flu that day. Rather, she dreaded giving a work presentation and worried, “What if everyone can see I’m sweating and my voice trembles? I’d look and sound stupid!”
Mike declined an invitation to his cousin’s wedding. He feared his face would turn beet-red, and he’d be embarrassed and suffer public scrutiny. He did make himself attend church services but sat in the back row, ready to leave quickly.
Ally and Mike have a fear problem called social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia. It’s common. Approximately 12 percent of adults in the U.S. meet the criteria for this disorder at some time in their lives. Perhaps you, your friend, or a counselee are among them and need help and hope.
In this article, you’ll get a definition of social anxiety, learn the two main types, and discover how to overcome it practically and biblically.
What Is Social Anxiety?
Anxiety covers a spectrum from mild to severe. Nervousness while giving a speech is normal. Remember high school speech communications class? You probably slept restlessly the night before and feared you’d stumble over your words when you gave your speech. This anxiety is uncomfortable but ordinary.
But social anxiety disorder is an intense fear of looking clumsy or shameful in social situations and public gatherings. The sufferer fears harsh judgment, embarrassment, or rejection. It is not the same as ordinary shyness; it is debilitating and interferes with day-to-day living.
Accompanying social anxiety are physical symptoms including blushing and excessive perspiration, as well as trembling, an increased heart rate, stomach “butterflies,” a sudden need to use the toilet, stammering, and so on. It can begin at any age but typically starts in the mid-teens.
The sufferer is a worrier and often tries to feel better through avoidance, including:
- Staying home and watching Netflix
- Scrolling social media
- Drinking alcohol to take the edge off
- Using coping techniques
But avoidance doesn’t work in the long run and fails to address the real problem: fearing others’ opinions. “Fundamentally, any struggle with fearing others is a worship problem,” Deepak Reju says. “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom (see Prov. 1:7), but sadly, it often doesn’t come first. We lose ourselves in the sea of other people’s opinions, and fear of others overwhelms us.”
Two Types of Social Anxiety
Performance situations: Ally’s work avoidance fits this type of anxiety; she panicked over the thought of giving a presentation and prefers working remotely. (She’d say the Covid-19 lockdowns improved her lot because no one harangued her to go to the office.) Other examples of performance situations include reading, writing, or signing your name in public; playing an instrument at a recital or singing in a chorus; public speaking.
Social interaction situations: Mike’s fear of attending his cousin’s wedding fits this type. In high school, he blushed in a social situation at school, was teased, and has struggled ever since. Other examples of social interaction situations include attending important life events such as graduations, anniversaries, and funerals, going to children’s school and sporting events, eating at restaurants, using a public (or an unfamiliar) restroom, and attending church services or community groups.
Overcoming Social Anxiety
The secular approach to treating social anxiety disorder is typically cognitive behavioral therapy and the use of anti-depressants and anxiety medication. While some may benefit from this approach, it fails to address the root of the problem and provide lasting change.
Scripture lovingly warns us, “Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe” (Prov. 25:29, NIV). Let’s discuss a biblical method for overcoming social anxiety.
1. Identify Our Sinful Fear
No one likes rejection or ridicule or the uncomfortable physical sensations that can accompany social anxiety. We desire acceptance, love, comfort, safety, security, peace, and ease. These desires are not inherently wrong, but when they morph into demands, and we attempt to make ourselves feel better through avoidance, it’s worth asking these questions:
- What grabs hold of my thoughts when I’m tempted to fear?
- How does fear interfere with loving God and others?
- What am I believing about God when I am afraid?
In her mid-20s, Claire avoids social gatherings unless her sister is present. She wants safety and security most of all. She fears the physical sensations of shakiness and lightheadedness that accompany her anxiety and make her look foolish. Her avoidance strategy backfires, however. After a momentary rush of relief when she turns down a party invitation, her anxiety returns with a vengeance. When she’s afraid, she is believing that God is not powerful enough to protect her, so she must protect herself.
Underline this: The social anxiety sufferer is anxious about anxiety and avoids situations to reduce anxious thoughts and physical sensations!
2. Choose to Trust God Despite Our Fear
Claire learned that faith is believing the Word of God and acting upon it, no matter how she feels, knowing that God promises a good result. It is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). It was easy for her to believe the promise that God is near when He feels near. But when her feelings of fear told her a different story, she let them rule. She became self-focused rather than loving God and others.
What helped was her making an intentional choice to believe in the trustworthiness and goodness of God when her emotions disagreed. Studying the heroes in Hebrews 11 helped her to forgo her need to control and instead rest in Jesus (Matt. 11:28-30). She also memorized Philippians 4:4-9 and other Scripture verses.
3. Put Our Faith into Action
Taking intentional micro-action steps helped Claire gain confidence and trust God more. As God renewed her mind (Eph. 4:23; Rom. 12:2), she began little (almost daily) challenges: she read a Scripture at her college & career small group, used a public toilet at a theater, drank coffee with friends at a cafe, spoke up during a group conversation, and grabbed an Uber by herself. (This happened over several months.) She felt nervous but pushed on in God’s strength, reminding herself of these five things:
- This is just anxiety.
- It is not dangerous.
- God is with me and in me.
- He accepts me because I’m in Jesus.
- I am safe in His care.
When she had an opportunity to fly from a major midwest city to Florida to meet up with friends and family, she accepted it as another challenge. She initially felt nervous but continued to trust the Lord and disbelieve that her core problem was anxiety sensations. And just recently, she flew to Hawaii for a work trip. Again, she felt some anxiety but refused to let it rule her. She chose love over fear.
Scripture teaches that “love comes from God” (1 John 3:7) and “there is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18). God does not want social anxiety for any of us. We have His power to face our fears and to rely on Him, not ourselves, and find freedom. Claire meditated on the apostle Paul’s instruction to young Timothy, who struggled with cowardice: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).
Jesus, the Answer to Social Anxiety
The social anxiety sufferer has fallen prey to the fear-of-man trap. Their anxiety shows itself in their thoughts and uncomfortable, even scary, bodily sensations like a racing heart. True confidence is not found in our abilities or circumstances but in fearing the right person.
Oswald Chambers put it this way, “The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.”
As Claire discovered, trusting Christ and not others’ opinions helped her to overcome social anxiety. Does she still struggle sometimes? Yes. But now, she knows to turn to Him and find the help she needs.
“Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for their children, it will be a refuge” (Prov. 14:26).
Questions for Reflection
- Are you or your friend or counselee dealing with performance social anxiety or social setting anxiety? Describe the physical and emotional responses.
- Do they have anxiety over their anxiety? How would faith in action help to address this struggle?
 National Institute of Mental Health, “Prevalence of Social Anxiety Disorder Among Adult,” nimh.nih.gov, accessed July 22, 2022, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/social-anxiety-disorder#part_2642.
 It’s interesting that some secular counselors recognize the limitations of coping strategies. Elizabeth Scott, “Avoidance Coping and Why It Creates Additional Stress,” February 22, 2021, verywellmind.com, accessed July 23, 2022, https://www.verywellmind.com/avoidance-coping-and-stress-4137836#.
 Zach Schlegel, Fearing Others: Putting God First (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2019), 8. 31-Day Devotionals for Life series editor Deepak Reju shared this insight in the foreword to Pastor Schlegel’s helpful book.
 These questions were inspired by Janie Street, “Christ, God’s Answer to Your Fear,” in Women Counseling Women: Biblical Answers to Life’s Difficult Problems (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2010), 91-92.
 Biblical Counseling Center, “Faith Versus Feelings – Practical Change Assignment,” provided on its online Foundations of Biblical Counseling course, module 3, https://biblicalcounselingcenter.org/we-train/foundations/.
 Oswald Chambers, “Psalm 128: Seemliness of Sanctity” in The Pilgrim’s Song Book (repr., London: Simpkin Marshall, 1941). I’ve been a fan of Oswald Chambers for decades and was reminded of this quote in Zach Schlegel’s Fearing Others devotional.