Question: "How can a Christian overcome social anxiety?"
Answer: Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the U.S., with social anxiety disorders being number one among them. Anxiety disorders, like most mental disorders, have a spectrum of severity. For some people an anxiety disorder is relatively easily managed whereas for others the disorder becomes disabling. No matter where on the spectrum a Christian suffering with an anxiety disorder falls, he or she can find help and hope in God.
Anxiety is triggered by many things, including some physical conditions. Depending on the disorder, treatment may involve self-help techniques, professional therapy, medication, or a combination. Obviously prayer, reading God's Word, and Christian fellowship will be important ingredients in overcoming social anxiety; these are all things in which every Christian should be engaged. But the fact that cognitive therapy is usually the best treatment for anxiety disorders reveals the battle is most often in the mind. The Bible teaches that Christians can control how they think and what they think about because God has given us the Holy Spirit to teach such things (John 14:26–27). Most people never consider that they can control their thoughts to a great degree. But with practice, prayer, and help from God, the battle can be won or at the very least the anxiety can be made manageable (see Philippians 4:7). We know God’s plan for His children does not include a life of fear (2 Timothy 1:7).
Social anxiety (SA) is a specific type of anxiety disorder characterized by an unreasonable fear of being in public situations. Often, the sufferer of social anxiety disorder believes other people are examining him with a critical and judgmental eye. Or he might be afraid of doing something wrong or making a social mistake. Sufferers are extremely self-conscious and are in perpetual fear of embarrassing themselves. Because those with social anxiety are usually perfectionists, a helpful thing for them to learn is that no one is perfect, except for Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:22). Western culture has bombarded people with the false idea that perfection can be attained if you look a certain way, own a certain thing, or have a certain career. Those who do not meet these standards are sometimes seen as, or see themselves as, less-than and unworthy of social merit. The Bible tells us none of these things matter to God; He looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). Those suffering from SA should realize they are not perfect—and neither is anyone else (Romans 3:23). Rather than hold themselves to an unattainable standard and live as their own worst and constant critic, it behooves those suffering from SA to learn to accept forgiveness in Christ and to look to His righteousness. Living up to societal standards is not what make a person acceptable; being a child of God is what matters.
The principle of sowing and reaping is found throughout the Bible and is active in our everyday lives (Galatians 6:7; Proverbs 11:18). Jesus said, “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). To the social anxiety sufferer, it appears everyone else seeks to judge him or that everyone else is aware of his every flaw. This is often because he himself has a critical eye and has spent too much energy focused on the opinions of others. Because the social anxiety sufferer is critical of himself and hyper aware of others, he assumes others have the same thinking. When we sow a forgiving, loving, merciful attitude toward others, we will reap the same (Luke 6:38). We need to sow this attitude toward ourselves, too. When we learn to accept ourselves the way God has made us and look to Him alone for validation and forgiveness, we can be more comfortable in our own skin. The more comfortable we are to simply be ourselves, the more comfortable we become socially and the more winsome we are to others. We can also call on God in social situations. As we learn to trust Him more and get to know Him better, we become more aware of His presence and can trust His Holy Spirit to carry us through challenging social encounters.
Many social anxiety sufferers have been victimized in the past by some sort of trauma or an overbearing, critical parent. Such incidents may lead us to develop certain attitudes about ourselves and others without even being aware of it. While the above tactics will be helpful for such people, it may also be important to give more focused effort to unmasking the attitudes we hold toward ourselves. When we know how we see ourselves, we can hold that up to the light of God's truth and ask for His view. He can bring healing to trauma and truth to falsehoods. For those who experience extreme social anxiety, it may be beneficial to meet with a Christian counselor for help in healing. Ultimately, we can depend on the Holy Spirit to provide us comfort in our pain, guide us into truth (John 14:25–27; 16:33), and produce His fruit in our lives (Galatians 5:22–23).
For those who struggle with social anxiety and extreme shyness, we encourage a biblical view of self. As believers, we are loved (Romans 5:8), we are accepted (Ephesians 1:6), and we are not condemned (Romans 8:1). Being secure in Christ, we have the freedom to reach out to others and love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:33).