Sep 14, 2017 6:51 PM
Anxious feelings can stop us from doing the things we’d like to do and connecting with the people in our lives. Have you ever avoided a party or speaking up in a conversation even when you knew something interesting about the subject? Social anxiety is like an anchor we carry with us throughout the day, preventing us from moving forward and engaging with others. What might feel like nervous excitement to some can feel like a moment of sheer terror and enduring torture to a person dealing with social anxiety. The quickening heartbeat, flushed face, difficulty breathing, and the sinking feeling that your voice might fail you leads many people to avoid public situations. This avoidance may provide relief in the short-term, but it often deteriorates into isolation and eventually to depression.
Factors contributing to social anxiety include genetic inheritance, behavioral modeling (how you were raised), and traumatic events. While you can’t change the reasons you developed social anxiety, you can choose your reactions to it. Understanding that how you think influences how you feel can make a tremendous difference in how you approach managing your anxiety.
1. Notice the anxious thought.
When you are around others you may notice your thoughts turning inward to all the things that can go wrong. Take a moment and recognize what changes happened internally. Did you think of something you wanted to say or do, but then froze? What are you afraid will happen?
Sometimes an anxious thought such as “I won’t know what to say and everyone will think I’m stupid,” can result in feeling like you have nothing to add to the conversation and then concluding that you don’t enjoy talking to people. Pressure test this conclusion by noticing what you think when other people are quiet or only say a few things in a conversation. Do you automatically think they are stupid? Probably not…or at least, let’s hope not. More than likely you give others the benefit of the doubt in social situations.
2. Identify the distortion.
We have all experienced distorted thinking. It sounds a lot more demented than it actually is. Common distorted thoughts include:
- Catastrophe - “The worst thing possible will happen.”
- Spotlighting - “Everyone will see what I’m thinking”
- Mind Reading - “I know exactly what they think about me.”
- Social Perfection - “Mistakes are not allowed.”
There are many more distorted thoughts possible, but these seem to be prevalent automatic thoughts for the socially anxious. Automatic thoughts are default settings that result from unexamined reasoning and set off anxious feelings. Once you identify the distortion, it becomes apparent that it is your interpretation of an event or situation that you can manage. For example, if everyone waited until they had the perfect thing to say, there would be an awful lot of silence.
3. Name the feeling.
It’s strange how limited our feeling vocabulary can be when you consider the wide range of feelings that people can experience in a single day. Expanding the words you use to describe how you feel (past the glad, mad, sad, bad rhyming variety) can open up the nuanced meaning you assign to the internal processing of events and circumstances. For now, just listening to yourself as you encounter situations in which you feel uncomfortable can provide tremendous insight into your individual response.
4. Take action.
Our thoughts and feelings influence our actions. When you notice an anxious thought, identify the distortion, and name the feeling, what is your response? These things are all connected to what you do. It is a chain reaction that only you can control.
5. Decide to move toward avoidance or values.
You could decide to avoid the situation, but how does this help you in the long run? Avoiding it this time only means that the pressure builds up and intensifies the next time the same thing comes around.
Moving toward your values; however, affirms growth and courage. Values are anything that is important to you. If you want to grow deeper friendships or relationships, then there are going to be times when you have to leave your house to be there for someone else. If you want to grow in your career, then you might have to speak up at a meeting or give a presentation. It all depends upon on what you choose.
Managing social anxiety takes work, but it doesn’t have to happen overnight. Start small and with people you already trust. If there is a particularly negative person in your life, don’t start with them. Build your confidence by sharing your thoughts with someone you consider kind and patient. You will probably be amazed at how generous other people can be once you give them a chance to get to know you.