What is social anxiety?

Social Anxiety is defined in the mental health world as a fear of social situations where you will be potentially exposed to scrutiny, observation and judgment by others. People with social anxiety tend to overestimate the consequences of negative social events. Social anxiety can be triggered when you are talking to someone else, in a new situation with unfamiliar people , when you are eating in front of others or performing publicly in any manner. While it is common for many people to feel shy in new situations, social anxiety is more serious. The anxiety is usually not reasonable because there is no true threat involved. For many people, social anxiety can be debilitating because a lot of time is spent either anticipating a new situation or working tirelessly to avoid social situations. This can lead to isolation which actually further strengthens the social anxiety because the person doesn’t learn to tolerate social settings. This article will explore how to overcome social anxiety in 6 steps using skills from a variety of behavioral therapies.

6 steps to help you overcome social anxiety

1. Approach what you’re Afraid of

In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, this is known as an exposure technique. One of the most powerful ways for the brain to learn that something is not actually threatening is through actually facing and experiencing the feared situation. Even if the outcome is not what you predicted and you do end up being judged or saying something “awkward”, the brain learns that you can tolerate these situations, and that nothing tangibly “bad” actually happened to you. With continued exposure to social situations that you fear, you will eventually habituate to these experiences and a stress response will no longer be triggered in your body every time you’re in an unfamiliar social context. Exposure practice can be as simple as intentionally putting yourself in situations that you would usually avoid such as going to your neighbors party, eating your lunch where you know you’ll be seen, striking up a conversation with a stranger or asking what you perceive to be a silly question. The goal is to allow yourself to be in a situation where you will feel “awkward” and or “judged” so that you can learn that these feelings are okay to have. You can never really know for sure what others are thinking of you but no-one on the planet is immune from judgment. You should be able to move around the world freely and live your life regardless of how others might perceive you. Part of exposure therapy involves rating your anxiety on a scale of 0-10 before the social situation, during and after. Ideally over time, you will notice that your anxiety should trend downwards but it will likely take multiple repeated exposures to see improvement.

2. Use empowering Self Talk to Coach yourself through the social situation

Become your own best friend in unfamiliar situations. If you’re engaging in a lot of negative self talk such as “I know they’re looking at me and thinking I look strange” or “I can’t believe I just said that, I sound so stupid”, then your negative thoughts will naturally ramp up your anxiety which will in turn lead to more social anxiety thoughts. It’s a vicious cycle that you can break by intentionally cheering yourself on internally when you’re in a social setting. You can say things like “it’s okay if people look at me, I deserve to be here as much as anyone else does”, or “what I have to say is valuable” or “I notice that my body is tense and my palms are sweating and that’s okay, I can press my feet into the ground and remind myself that I am safe”. If positive self talk does not feel authentic to you, then you can also take a more neutral and non-judgmental stance such as “I am eating my food and other people are eating their food and we can all see each other eating our food”. In this example, you are acknowledging the reality that people can see you eating but you are viewing it as a neutral event and not letting your mind entertain negative judgments such as it being a disgusting or embarrassing process.

3. Reframe your Anxious thoughts

Thought reframing is another popular cognitive behavioral therapy technique that involves noticing your specific thoughts, categorizing them into their relevant cognitive distortion category, evaluating the evidence for and against the anxious thought and constructing a more rational thought. An example of a social anxiety cognitive distortion would be black and white thinking  also known as “all or nothing thinking”. You might think “I have to speak and act perfectly to be accepted by others” or “if I say the wrong thing, I will be rejected and alone forever”. Challenging these thoughts might involve a review of yours and other people’s relationships with regards to whether or not the maintenance of the relationship is a result of perfect behavior. In fact you might even explore what it even means to act and speak perfectly. Your exploration will likely lead you to discover that in every relationship there is no such thing as a perfect conversation or behaving in a certain way 100% of the time. As human beings, we are all flawed. Due to a multitude of factors, there will be times that we don’t always act or speak in a certain way and this is perfectly normal. In fact this is what makes us unique and interesting as individuals. A reframed though might sound like “I do not have to speak and act perfectly to have friends”.

4. Use mindfulness to stay anchored

Mindfulness is a useful tool from Dialectical Behavior Therapy and is described as paying attention, with intention to the present moment. In simpler terms, mindfulness is about “staying present”. With mindfulness practice, you can learn to catch your mind when it starts to wander off down a social anxiety path and bring your attention back to the present moment as a way to stay anchored and in control of your actions. You can do this by using your senses to notice what you see, hear, can touch etc. When you’re in the middle of a social situation and you notice your social anxiety starting to rise, you can scan the room and say “I am noticing lights on the ceilings, square tiles on the floor and blue paint on the walls” and “I can hear voices, music and a child shouting” and “I can feel the smooth wooden table and the leather seat”. All of these are grounding mindfulness skills that will keep you present and from getting caught up in negative anxiety thoughts.

5. Remember your values to stay motivated

In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy we learn to identify the values that we want to live by. Values can be identified by thinking about what inspires you, what matters to you and what you want to stand for. Our actions should be guided by our values. Examples of values include acceptance, adventure, challenge, serving others, courage, humor and kindness. If your value is serving others, you will need to learn to overcome your fear of social situations and so in this way your value can help motivate your pursuit of behavioral change. Next time you are considering avoiding a social situation in order to lower your anxiety, think about whether avoidance is in line with the values by which you want to live.

6. Have a “cope ahead” plan

Before you embark on your next social outing you may want to construct a plan for how you will cope if things don’t go as planned. You can use the skills in this above article depending on what happens. If you believe you have said the “wrong thing” you can use cognitive reframing. If you notice your mind getting caught up in anxious thoughts, you can use mindfulness of your surroundings to come back to the present moment and if you notice yourself wanting to leave early you can remember your values to keep you motivated to stay in the anxiety provoking situation.

If you’re struggling with social anxiety, our therapists at Cityscape Counseling can help. Contact us today!

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