Understanding and Controlling Social Stress

Social stress is a type of stress that results from interactions and relationships with others. Sometimes you feel like it’s ‘not you’ but ‘everyone else’ and that is pretty much the definition of social stress.

There are many different reasons that social stress is an issue and it can take a number of different forms. Seeing as most of us have no choice but to spend a large amount of time in social settings every single day though, it’s paramount that you understand what might be causing your own social stress and how you can get it under control.

Why Are Social Situations Stressful?

In theory, being social should actually be a cure for stress. Socializing triggers the release of serotonin which is a neurotransmitter known to help alleviate the symptoms of stress and often even described as a ‘natural antidepressant’. Why then would social stress be a problem?

One reason for social stress might be that you are someone who gets social anxiety. Social anxiety is a slightly different problem in which you feel nervous whenever you are tasked with talking to people you don’t know, making presentations or talks, or generally putting yourself out on a limb and exposing yourself to potential criticism. Some people can end up with such a petrifying fear of social situations that they end up avoiding them altogether. On a much smaller scale, this is something that shy people also have to face – and if you find yourself getting an acute stress response every time you have to speak up, then this can make you feel somewhat stressed overall by the end of a long day.

Another point to consider is that stress is contagious. What this means is that if just one person in a group is stressed, this will likely ‘spread’ around the group causing everyone there to feel stressed. There are many reasons for this. ‘Mirror neurons’ for instance are brain cells that fire when we see people express specific emotions. If you see someone who is happy then you’ll feel happy, if you see someone who is angry you will feel angry – and so on. Likewise, we tend to mirror expressions of other people as part of social interactions and this too can fuel our mood via ‘facial feedback’. Combine this with the fact that stress makes us irritable and prone to shout at other people and you can see why a bad mood could quickly spread around a group.

Then there’s the fact that some social interactions are simply stressful in their very nature. Relationships can be stressful if they aren’t going the way we think they should be or if we’re arguing a lot. Likewise, work relationships can be stressful if you don’t get on with your team or if you feel someone isn’t pulling their weight. There are lots of politics and dramas that go on in families, friendship groups and teams of coworkers and these can all be tiring and stressful.

Finally, add to all this the fact that you simply can’t relax and indulge yourself when you have to keep talking to people and spending a day with other people is likely to be stressful in some cases. More so depending on the nature of your interaction and depending on what kind of person you are – i.e. if you’re shy or not.

How to Deal With Social Stress

So that’s where social stress comes from… but what can you do about it? There are a few things to consider…

Control the Situation

If you are fortunate enough to be in control of the situation then you might be able to decide who you spend time with and for how long. For instance, if you are hosting an event and you know you’re someone who deals often with social stress, then you should consider carefully inviting fewer people and keeping the time you spend with them as short as possible.

You may not have the luxury of controlling who you work with in your office but if you’re often suffering with social stress you might want to at least consider changing jobs or asking to be put in a different department. Perhaps you could do better in a more solitary line of work?

Take Breaks

As mentioned earlier, part of the problem with socializing is that we aren’t able to just kick back and be ourselves. At home when you get tired you can just lie on the floor. When you’re angry you can punch a pillow. In social settings though these things are considered somewhat unacceptable so you have to be constantly ‘on’ and constantly ‘guarded’. You can’t even burp.

That’s why we often feel our whole body untense as soon as we get somewhere to be on our own and it’s why it’s a good idea to make sure you get this alone time occasionally. Even if you’re an extrovert. So if your colleagues ask if you want to go together for lunch, perhaps suggest that this time you’d like to go on your own. It might feel unsociable but you’ll feel better in the long run!


Really though, overcoming social stress is about understanding that it doesn’t matter too much what other people think, or if you occasionally argue. If you argue with someone you love, you should know they’ll forgive you – they value your friendship as much as you do. Likewise, if you really need to burp just do it quietly and apologize! And if you aren’t getting on all that well with your colleagues… presumably you have friends outside work so it shouldn’t really be the end of the world.

Caring less what other people think is perhaps the most important way to combat social stress and CBT or ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’ can help you to do this. This is a form of psychotherapeutic intervention that focusses on helping you to identify your damaging thoughts, challenge them and then replace them with more positive beliefs. If you’re struggling with social stress often – look into it!

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Keith Hillman

Keith Hillman is a full time writer specializing in psychology as well as the broader health niche. He has a BSc degree in psychology from Surrey University, where he particularly focused on neuroscience and biological psychology. Since then, he has written countless articles on a range of topics within psychology for numerous of magazines and websites. He continues to be an avid reader of the latest studies and books on the subject, as well as self-development literature.

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