Social anxiety often occurs in anticipation of, during, and after social situations. Its debilitating effects, meanwhile, can keep people from doing what they would like to do, or going where they would like to go. A person suffering from social anxiety usually has a fear of both positive _and_negative evaluation from others.
Lisa Klarner, author of Releasing the Secret Pain: Moving Beyond Social Anxiety Disorder, noted via email interview that, “People with social anxiety disorder have an intense feeling (and belief) that everyone is watching or judging them in social situations. The fear is so extreme that it is not possible for the person to look around to see if people are actually looking at them.”
How common is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is equally common in men and women in the United States, and is considered within a group of social phobias that affect cultures around the world, as much as three percent of any given population. However, moderate fears like those of meeting new people, speaking in public, or dealing with criticism are common and cannot be defined as social anxiety. Social anxiety, instead, can take on a more inverted nature, being defined as a fear of interaction that sparks self-consciousness, inferiority, depression, inadequacy and negative judgement from others.
Causes of social anxiety
Past experience: this theory suggests that pain and bad experiences from the past can cause a person to develop a social anxiety in fear of repeating the previous experience. This causes the individual to avoid similar situations.
Thinking styles: how a person thinks about his environment can lead to the development of this condition. A person can believe that they will fail at a given satiation point and completely avoid situations without even trying.
Evolutionary reasons: some individuals with social anxiety disorder have had the condition passed down from a parent, a close familial tie or have developed it by modeling behaviors of those around them.
In real life, a combination of any of these factors can result in a severe case of social anxiety in an individual.
Often, people with this might react "irrationally anxious" within a social setting. Physical symptoms vary per individual and may include sweating, stomach butterflies, blushing, rapid heartbeat, etc. Social anxiety disorder can seriously interfere with normal life and result in avoidance behavior.
But the tips below can help individuals cope with social anxiety that may be interfering with their relationships with friends, coworkers, and family.
When you worry, you are programming yourself to focus on negative possibilities. Try to relax your mind and picture yourself confident in the situation you are about to face. When you do this repeatedly, your mind can adjust to thinking confidently.
According to Lisa Klarner, _“Recognizing the negative thoughts you have about social situations can be challenging, but it is achievable. Replace the negative with a positive thought (or outcome), see and truly believe you can face feared situations. This doesn’t happen overnight, but with patience and persistence you will move forward.” _
Seek out the social situations you fearThrust yourself into the situations you fear. Remove avoidance from the equation and face the fear. This way you learn that you can survive without safety measures and avoidance tactics. Lisa Klarner reminds us of the need to move at a comfortable pace, _“When you are suffering from a disorder like social anxiety, it’s crucial to take gradual steps toward healing. Putting yourself into feared situations takes careful thought and planning. _If you are used to making it through parties because your best friend is with you, try being without her for one hour and see how you fare. Repeat this while increasing the length of time you're on your own.** Lisa adds,** "Make a list of feared social situations and bring them in order – high, medium, low – based on your anxiety level. Then start with the least feared situation and expose yourself to it until you feel like you have successfully faced the fear."
Look outward to your surroundings
When you are socially anxious, you tend to focus inward, on your feelings. However, when you focus outward, your anxiety level is lowered, allowing you to manage in social situations.
For example, coping with the social anxiety of public speaking due to the fear of negative feedback from the audience requires that you focus on the audience and not on your voice, feelings and (possible) mistakes. Focus on the color of the walls in the room where you're giving an address, or the clothes others are wearing, and you will be on your way to success with managing your anxiety. Lisa Klarner shares a technique she has found helpful, “I recommend taking a deep breath, and focusing externally as you breathe out.
Learn to ask questionsThose who have social anxiety always worry what others think of them.** Try turning the attention around and instead focus on others**. Be curious. Ask questions that are open-ended and you will find that, most of the time, you are focusing outward and not within. The other person will also appreciate that you are interested in them. This friendly approach can help you gain self-confidence so that you can do things you previously avoided.
Control your imagination
According to Lisa Klarner, “I always say that people with anxiety are great writers because of all the ‘off the wall’ stories that run through their minds. Take it from me, a former anxiety sufferer, anxious thoughts can take over and fill our minds with false, unrealistic ideas.” The mind is very powerful, however, no matter how hard you try, you do not know what another person thinks of you. It is wonderful to use your imagination, but when left unchecked, making assumptions is a recipe for a social disaster.
Learn to catch yourself trying to read the other person's mind. When you control your imagination and use it positively, you will become more confident socially.
Provide yourself with a ‘target feeling’The mind always needs something to work on, so learn to give it positive instructions to follow when you feel anxious in a situation. Close your eyes and focus on a pleasant time you've had, or a person who makes you feel confident. Imagine behaving in a social situation just like you would among trusted, supportive friends.
When you learn to be yourself, you become relaxed enough to present the less-than-perfect — but very real — you to the world. When you do something foolish, as we all do at one time or another, make a joke about it. Being comfortable showing the "real you" in public is a gigantic step toward building self-confidence.
Lisa Klarner reminds us that this does take time, “When anxious thoughts take over, it’s like living behind a mask. The real you is there, somewhere underneath the anxiety. Take a chance to reflect and consider who you are – deep down – without the anxiety. Begin to explore what the ‘best you’ looks like and find ways to bring this ‘you’ out into the world gradually.”
Practice slow breathing
It is normal for your breathing rate to increase as part of the "fight or flight" response. The trick is learning how to slow it down to settle your anxiety and help you focus. When you are about to face a stressful situation, this technique can come in handy. Sit comfortably and time your breathing while watching the second hand of a watch or clock. Breathe in for three seconds and out for three seconds. Repeat after a break. On average, it takes 10 to 12 minutes for a person to calm down this way, so don’t rush yourself. Practice this technique in a relaxed environment first so you can learn how to cope social anxiety when it arises.
Change your thought processes
People with social anxiety can sometimes assume that someone’s behavior is targeted at them. Write down negative thought patterns that run through your mind and try to identify their triggers.
Challenge your unhelpful thoughts
During anxiety episodes, we readily believe all the unhelpful thoughts running around in our heads. However, if one can learn to question the basis for these beliefs, their foundations crumble, as they are based on wrong assumptions to begin with. Ask yourself if it is possible you have misrepresented the facts and the possibilities of a given situation.
Lisa adds , "When you contemplate an anxiety-filled experience, consider what you may have been thinking. What thoughts were running through your mind? Write down the negative thoughts and come up with positive alternatives – otherwise known as affirmations. Write these positive affirmations down and post them around your home, repeat them to yourself as often as possible."
Remember, even seemingly confident people experience some degree of anxiety, but most have mastered the art of managing it. They too make mistakes in public, but they usually don't make a big deal out of it; instead, they shrug off their mistakes, or decide to learn from them, and move on. Once you learn to accept yourself the way you are, you'll find that many parts of your life that you thought were out of control will fall into place.
Mike Veny is one of America’s leading mental health awareness speakers, HealthCentral’s new mental health social ambassador, and a high energy corporate drumming event facilitator. He delivers educational, engaging, and entertaining presentations to meetings and conferences throughout the world. Learn more and connect with Mike at TransformingStigma.com.