Many people suffer from high anxiety in social situations such as parties, meetings and going to the gym. But choosing to engage in physical activity could actually have a beneficial effect for sufferers.

Handling social anxiety when you’re keen on sports or exercise can be difficult. With pressure to perform well, comparisons between other people, fears of being on display, negative evaluation and concerns over body image, those with social anxiety might find it tricky to cope. Pushed to extremes, social anxiety disorder causes people to avoid participating in physical activity which may have substantial health consequences.

Whilst many people feel uncomfortable in social and performance situations, if anxiety begins to negatively affect relationships, work and social life, ‘Social Anxiety Disorder’ or ‘Social Phobia’ is diagnosed. Millions of people suffer from it, including athletes such as US footballer Ricky Williams and MMA star Nick Diaz.  The lesson to learn from these guys is not to let your fears limit what you decide to do.

Can team sports help?

Participating in team sports has been linked to a reduction in social anxiety. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology showed that primary school children who took part in team sports had far fewer social anxiety symptoms. The 2-year Swiss study found that socially anxious children experienced a ‘buffering’ effect from extra-curricular team sports which helped reduce their symptoms of anxiety.

Although the study only related to children, we can see how the same relief from social anxiety could apply to adults who participate in team sports. Other studies have found that athletes who participate in individual sports experienced more anxiety than those in team sports. It appears that being part of a team eases much of the pressure experienced by being on your own.   Getting involved in something like netball or football may seem daunting but it certainly seems to help and may offer lots of other benefits too.

Overcoming performance fears

Concerns over performance are a common trigger for social anxiety. Will I drop the ball? What if I say something stupid? What if I can’t lift that weight? A certain level of physical arousal can be helpful but when we are overwhelmed by physical sensations of anxiety they will actually hinder your performance. Sports psychologists regularly work with athletes to cope with anxiety mainly focusing on combating negative thought patterns by using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). This is a good place to start for anyone feeling anxious about going to the gym.

Will going to the gym help?

Ironically, those with social anxiety may find it difficult to make themselves visit the gym due to its very social nature. But while the idea might seem daunting, the reality is that the gym could actually help you to overcome your fears. ‘Feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ can help calm your nerves as your swirling adrenaline has a physical outlet through bursts of energy and panting.

You might need to choose your class carefully. Activities where your performance is on display, like free weights, might cause high anxiety at first. This may be good if you want to test your fears to the max, but you may prefer to choose something where you can blend in more to the background at first. Good examples are exercise classes like spinning and kickboxing where you can just turn up, do your thing, then go. Even better might be a calming class like yoga or Pilates which will release any tension and encourage a relaxed state of mind.  Or even better, go for the proven benefits of team sports.

Whichever type of exercise you choose to do, it should become a regular activity. First, choose a time which is least daunting for you. Quieter times such as early morning may be better, or if you prefer to get lost in a mass of people, choose a peak time.  As your confidence grows, you could simple choose your most convenient time. Just concentrate on making it fun so that you are keen to return again.

How does exercise help social anxiety?

The wide range of positive benefits from exercise are a key part of your journey to overcoming social anxiety disorder. These include:

  • Boosts self esteem. Setting and achieving goals such as running further on the treadmill each week will make you feel good about yourself.
  • Distraction. Using your brain to focus on workout movements, hitting the ball or lifting weights correctly stops you from mulling over what other people are thinking about you. Consider physical exercise to be giving your brain a welcome break too!
  • Improves body image. A fitter, healthier body will boost your self-esteem.

Sitting around at home worrying about yourself will never help. So don’t let any social fears stop you from exercising. Remember, those who achieve the most benefit from participating in physical activities are determined to stay involved despite any discomfort.