I feel like I have lost the ability to communicate with people

Originally Published: October 7, 2005 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: March 6, 2014
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Dear Alice,

I've been "plagued" with this problem for at least a year now, and it seems to be getting progressively worse. I feel like I have lost the ability to communicate with people. Sure, I can make small talk about the weather and stuff like that, but I feel like I've lost my openness and humor with people. I figure I am changing and learning new things about myself, but this is getting ridiculous because it is affecting my social life drastically.

Whenever I get into a conversation with someone, either on the phone or in person, I become flustered. I have a problem with eye contact and I become very hot and sometimes I turn red in the face. Worst of all, my mind seems to be blank all the time and I can't get past small talk (even with my friends). I put a lot of pressure on myself when it comes to maintaining eye contact and continuing a conversation, but this pressure seems to fluster me more. I also seem to notice long pauses in conversation which I interpret as moments of awkwardness.

I realize that I have nothing to prove to anyone, but this problem still persists. I used to be very social before and now I am not. So what must I do to get by this? I figure, I'll just deal with it and it will go away, but it's been going on for too long. What must I do?

Thanx Alice,
Captain Confused

Dear Captain Confused,

For some reason, you seem to have become extremely self-conscious in social situations, which can feel awful, uncomfortable, and counterproductive. Well, reaching out, as you have, is an important first step.

Whether you are new at school, starting a new job, or moving to a new place, what you're experiencing is common for people in new, unfamiliar social situations. Everyone can feel shy; focusing on discomfort or awkwardness in social situations can make a person even more self-conscious. Some manifest their anxiety by talking too much, monopolizing the conversation, showing off, or by maintaining an ultra-cool demeanor. Some get tongue-tied and/or withdrawn. And some are better at either masking or mastering their insecurities. Your reaction is normal, and maybe knowing this might ease some concern.

It might also be useful to see if you can pin this change in your social comfort level on a specific incident, a feeling triggered by an observation or realization, or a humiliating experience. Has anything happened to you in the past year that made you feel very embarrassed in a social circumstance? Have you perhaps gained some new awareness of a characteristic of yours that is making you socially self-conscious? Have you been openly rejected by someone recently? Any of these types of occurrences might set off physical reaction to social anxiety such as the one you are currently experiencing.

Could you try starting a conversation about how shy or nervous you are in new situations? It allows others to talk with you about their nervousness in similar situations. Your openness creates connections with people, and vice-versa. If this is an uncomfortable suggestion for you, you could choose to try it anyway, despite your discomfort. If you find this over the top, it's possible that you have something more like social anxiety, a diagnosable condition.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 15 million Americans describe having the same fears and physical symptoms you describe, so you're definitely not alone These questions are often asked to identify the degree of discomfort and to make a diagnosis:

  • How do you feel before you go out to meet friends? Do you ever avoid social situations because of your worries?
  • Do you have trouble talking with family members?
  • Does anyone else in your family feel nervous speaking at social functions, with new people, or at work? Social phobia or social anxiety can run in families.
  • Do you ever feel as though everyone is watching or judging you?
  • Has anything significant changed in your life over the last year or so? Do you remember feeling your anxiety increase after a particular conversation or experience?

Becoming flustered, hot, red in the face, and/or feeling as though you want to run away when there is a pause in the conversation are hallmarks of social anxiety, especially if these responses are interfering with your social life. Some people feel nauseated, shaky, and/or sweaty when their anxiety is triggered. For some, the fear begins when they anticipate a social situation. Many people who feel anxious have low self-esteem — either causing or because of their fears — and some manage their discomfort by drinking alcohol and/or using other drugs.

No matter the reason for feeling flustered, you deserve to learn more about your feelings, and fears, as well as specific ways to manage them.

Luckily, there are many options available to help you to deal with your social anxieties. For some, "talk therapy," where you tell the therapist about your life, past and present, to uncover and address the underlying causes of your reaction, is an option. Others find that cognitive-behavioral therapy is an option. This is another kind of talk therapy, which is short-term, concretely focusing on what and how you currently think and how it impacts your feelings, and vice-versa. Others find hypnosis helpful. And some benefit from a combination of approaches. In addition, psychopharmacological medicines are also effective at reducing anxiety, and combined with other approaches, create additional relief and progress.

If you are at Columbia, you can call Counseling and Psychological Services (Morninside) or the Mental Health Service (CUMC) for an appointment to begin short-term counseling. If you're not at Columbia, you can log into the National Institute of Mental Health's Getting Help: Locate Services for more information on finding a counselor in your area. Whether being flustered is a result of a transition in your life, ongoing social anxiety, or something not yet determined, you can learn to feel and respond differently, and you can learn to feel and be more empowered when you speak with people. With the support of professionals, you'll be taking another step toward mastering your discomfort. Best of luck!

Alice