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Overcoming social anxiety

02 June 2021 14:37

Social anxiety can be relatively limited and confined to a few situations, such as eating in public, or it can affect the majority of the situations involving interaction with others - here's a few tips on how to overcome the latter.

Social anxiety is a shorthand term that describes the fear, nervousness and apprehension most people at times experience in their relationships with other people. Some people who suffer from social anxiety would say they were shy, and may have been shy all their lives, but some people who are not shy also suffer from social anxiety. So shyness is not the whole story. Social anxiety strikes people when they think that they might do something that will be humiliating or embarrassing. Social anxiety makes you think that other people are judging you, and doing so in a negative way, because of something you said or did. Of course, the fear that you will do something humiliating or embarrassing is inhibiting, and it also makes you self-conscious: aware of the possibility that you might indeed do such a thing. Who would want to get into conversation if they thought that doing so would only reveal their clumsiness, or inadequacy, or tendency to blush? Socially anxious people tend to assume that their interactions with others will be painfully revealing: that others will notice their weaknesses or awkwardness; that they will be dismissed, ignored, criticised or rejected for not behaving more acceptably.

Examples of the signs and symptoms of social anxiety

Effects on thinking

  • Worrying about what others think of you
  • Focusing attention on yourself; being painfully aware of what you do and say
  • Thinking about what might go wrong, ahead of time

Effects on behaviour

  • Speaking quickly or quietly, mumbling, getting words mixed up
  • Avoiding catching someone’s eye
  • Doing things to make sure that you do not attract attention
  • Avoiding difficult social occasions or situations

Effects on the body

  • Signs of anxiety that others can see, such as blushing, sweating or trembling
  • Feeling tense; the aches and pains that go with being unable to relax
  • Panicky feelings: heart pounding, dizziness or nausea, breathlessness

Effects on emotions or feelings

  • Nervousness, anxiety, fear, apprehension, self-consciousness
  • Frustration and anger, with oneself and/or with others
  • Feeling unconfident; feelings of inferiority

Overcoming social anxiety involves learning how to break the vicious cycles that otherwise keep the problem going.

There are three main methods:

  1. Reducing self-focused attention. The aim is to shift your attention away from yourself: to forget yourself so that you can behave more naturally and spontane­ously when with other people. Paying more atten­tion to people and things outside yourself gives you a more accurate view of what is happening around you. It stops you relying on guesswork, and helps to make you less self-conscious. Self-consciousness comes from focusing your attention onto yourself. This makes you increasingly aware of uncomfortable sensations, feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Consciously focusing on people and things outside yourself instead allows the distress to die away and keeps you more in touch with what is happening around you.
  2. Changing thinking patterns. This involves learning how to think again about the dangers and risks involved in social situations. Because the fear in social anxiety focuses on ideas about what other people think about you, it helps to learn how to recognise and to re-examine your patterns of thinking – your thoughts and your expectations. This method helps you to recognise and to re-examine your thoughts – at all levels: the things you notice or that grab your attention; negative thoughts about difficult situations, and your underlying beliefs and assumptions. It is especially useful as social anxiety affects every aspect of thinking: ideas, attitudes, expectations, predictions, assumptions and beliefs. Rethinking these thoughts reduces fear and anxiety, for example about what other people think of you, or that you will be ‘found wanting’, or be ‘found out’.
  3. Doing things differently. The aim here is to discover how to face difficulties instead of avoiding them, and to take the risk of doing so without using safety behaviours for protection. The aim is to discover how to devise experiments that reveal what happens when you do things differently. The information you pick up in your experiments can then help you to rethink your old patterns of thinking. Doing things differently. Fear makes you want to keep safe, but safety behaviours and avoidance make the problem worse, not better. Although it feels risky, it is better to stop trying to protect yourself in these ways, as that is the best way to learn that you do not need to do it. Doing mini-experiments helps you to discover what happens when you do something differently and is especially useful in helping to rethink assumptions that otherwise keep the fear alive.