Understanding Social Anxiety and Blindness: Tips for Supporting a Friend or Family Member

I started conducting my dissertation research a month ago. While I was conducting my interviews, I became curious to learn about social anxiety among people who are blind and visually impaired (BVI). Studies have shown that people who are blind and visually impaired have higher risk of social anxiety than sighted people because they cannot observe visual cues such as facial expressions (e.g. smile, frown, wink, crying) or body language (e.g. crossed arms, eye contact, mannerisms) (Augestad, 2017; Dehghan et al., 2020). Visual cues are critical for social development. The sighted person can learn appropriate facial expressions, body language, and gestures from a young age. They can be learned by just observing and learning from their caregivers or peers. The sighted person can then mimic these behaviors and watch for these cues when connecting with others and develop appropriate social behavior. On the other hand, the person who is blind, does not have access to this social information unless their caregivers and people around them verbalize it. Without these verbal social cues, the person might lack social skills, which will affect their social interactions (Salleh and Zainal 2010). The person who is BVI might develop anxiety when they continuously experience a lack of interactions or primarily negative interactions from sighted people around them.

Image of a line drawing of a house with the silhouette of a person sitting alone inside

What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is when a person experiences fear in social situations (DSM-5). The person is extremely worried about how they will be judged with regards to how they look, interact, eat, talk, or perform a task. They are concerned about offending others or about being rejected, humiliated, or judged. To make matters worse, only an estimated 2.5% of people who experience social anxiety seek out professional help (Heimberg & Becker, 2002). This can lead to behaviors such as:

  • Avoiding social situations (e.g., parties, orientations, grocery shopping, eating out in a restaurant, family gatherings)
  • Not participating in discussions
  • Avoiding occupational tasks that require working with at least one other person.

What if my friend/relative who is BVI exhibits signs of social anxiety?

First, help to calm their nerves.

  • Encourage the person who is BVI to attend social gatherings
  • Assure them that they look and are interacting appropriately
  • Verbalize other people’s reactions and interactions with the person who is BVI
  • Introduce them to the others and include them in discussions
  • Provide support for them to experience new things like leisure activities, shopping, etc.
  • Acknowledge and accept their fears without judging them
  • Check in with them and let them know you are here to listen if they want to talk

If the person still exhibits signs of social anxiety, they may benefit from professional support (Wahyuningsih, Sunawan, & Awalya, 2019). Do not play the role of the therapist, your role is to support them and encourage them to seek such help from a professional. If you have any tips for how to support an individual who is BVI, please write them below.

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