Do you feel anxious attending social events, meeting new people or giving presentations? Most of us feel a little nervous in new situations but for people who experience a social anxiety disorder, that anxiety can be debilitating and can get in the way of living a full, rich and meaningful life. Social anxiety is caused by an assumption that other people will evaluate you in a negative way. Unfortunately, focusing on what you fear can have the effect of creating what you fear.
So if you are telling yourself that you will mess up the presentation or that you won’t be able to think of anything to say in conversation and that people will be judging you, you naturally will feel anxious. The physiological responses to those anxious thoughts include freezing and being unable to think clearly, speaking quickly and being less present to the people around you. The result can be that people assume you are aloof, not shy. Or that you fumble the presentation because of your nerves. In other words, your fears can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which only reinforces all the negative beliefs you already have and the assumptions you are making.
For many people who experience social anxiety, their preferred coping strategy is to avoid the situations they are afraid of. The ‘reward’ of that immediate relief you feel when you opt out of something that feels scary only reinforces the avoidance behaviour so that next time you feel anxious you’re more likely to avoid the situation again.
Over time, your anxiety doesn’t decrease. It actually increases. Not only have you positively reinforced your avoidant behaviour, but you’ve given yourself no opportunity to prove that you can cope with the thing that makes you nervous. You’ve had no chance to practice the skill of managing your anxiety so you get a different outcome.
Here’s the rub: Achieving what you want in life usually means having conversations with people, attending job interviews or giving presentations and when fear holds you back from doing those things, your options become more and more limited.
This is why it’s important to do something to manage your social anxiety when you notice it’s a problem and that it’s limiting your choices. Here are just a few things you might try if you want to make a start.
Lots of people assume that the advice to ‘just breathe’ is simplistic and unhelpful. The truth, however, is that when you experience anxiety of any kind, something is happening in your brain that also affects your physiology. It starts with your brain’s ‘fight or flight’ response and causes your body to flood with stress hormones and send blood away from your vital organs. It also has the effect of limiting your access to higher level, rational thinking. The best way to reverse this process and deactivate the fight or flight response is by breathing slowly and deeply, with more emphasis on the out-breath than the in-breath. Taking the time to concentrate on your breath, either before you enter a situation that you know makes you anxious, or even when you are in the midst of that situation can be enormously helpful in calming your fear response and helping you to choose where to direct your attention.
2. Take anxiety along for the ride
One of the most important steps in overcoming any kind of anxiety is to move towards the thing you fear, not away from it. The key point here is to challenge any expectation you have that you need to get rid of the anxiety before you do the thing you’re afraid of. The truth is that you will never live a completely anxiety-free life (everyone feels nervous sometimes) so it’s important to accept that some anxiety will ‘come along for the ride’ whenever you take yourself out of your comfort zone. This way, you will learn that you can survive the anxiety and that it isn’t the worst thing in the world.
3. Reality test your assumptions
A big part of anxiety stems from the stories we tell ourselves about what will go wrong. We develop a lot of worst-case scenarios in our mind and then when we avoid the situation, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to reality check those fears. When you are going into a situation you fear such as a social gathering, make some predications about how anxious you will feel. Notice any catastrophic thinking about how you will mess things up. Then observe what happens. You will probably find that once you enter the situation, your anxiety reduces fairly quickly, that people are friendly and maybe you even start to enjoy yourself. The important thing is to identify your assumptions and pay specific attention to how true (or NOT) those things turn out to be.
4. Focus outward
We feel socially anxious because of our strong focus on ourselves. It is human nature to be pre-occupied with stories about ourselves, our own flaws, and how we perceive other people are judging us. What we tend to forget is that everyone else is also very focused on themselves, their own perceived flaws and worrying about what people think about them. When we deliberately choose to take the focus off ourselves and direct our attention to making other people feel more comfortable, it can be a great relief. Choose to ask people questions about themselves, offer to re-fill people’s drinks or pass food around and have the goal or trying to make other people feel at ease. Notice also how much you don’t judge other people if they appear anxious or uncomfortable and use it as a reminder that most people aren’t judging you either.
5. Ask for help
If social anxiety is getting in the way of you enjoying life and achieving the things that are important to you, there are many other proven and effective strategies that can help. I highly recommend seeing your GP for a referral to a psychologist so you can receive specific and tailored strategies to help you overcome your fears and get on with enjoying life.
P.S. We’ll be covering social anxiety and how mindfulness can help you to overcome it during my Mindfulness for Busy People online course.