At its worst, social anxiety can develop into a persistent and overwhelming fear of social situations. If it reaches this point, experts generally consider the person to be suffering from a social anxiety disorder (more commonly termed social phobia (1)). In my experience, many people encounter a lesser form of social anxiety, exhibiting similar symptoms to the disorder, but in much less extreme form. If you are living with or are supporting someone with this anxiety, you may find great benefit in using this self-help technique.
Many of us routinely encounter awkward social situations. For some it’s about interacting with members of the opposite sex. Others may find encountering authority figures intimidating. Social gatherings, meeting strangers, making friends, job interviews, are all further examples of social situations that may seem unnerving to some.
I’ve helped people cope with their anxieties in a variety of ways, but for mild social anxiety I find a simple ABC strategy is useful. In this guide, I’ll first unpack what anxiety triggers and symptoms are seen during each ABC stage, and then I’ll use the same system to show how you might apply the information, and turn your situation to a positive.
The ‘A’ stageI’ve found that for social anxiety sufferers, it is the anticipation of the event that is the most daunting. Let’s consider this the ‘A’ phase. During the A phase a person becomes preoccupied -- worried about how things will go wrong and you may even start to feel ill. These are all symptoms of anticipatory anxiety, and they feel very uncomfortable.** In many cases I find once the fear threshold is actually crossed and the person is in the situation they feared their anxieties quickly diminish.**** The ‘B’ StageHowever, it’s not always this simple. Some people not only remain anxious within the build-up to an event, but also during and after the event takes place. If this is the case, we have to consider what’s occurring in both instances. Where the ‘A’ phase related to being mentally preoccupied, the ‘B’ phase relates to behavior. Socially anxious people focus a great deal on themselves. They monitor how they might look, or sound, and also how they feel. During this phase they will often do** things they think will keep them safe, such as staying quiet, sitting in a corner, or pretending to be preoccupied with objects in a room. If that isn’t possible, they will be guarded with what they say and expend lots of effort controlling their appearance and actions.
The ‘C’ StageWhen the event is over, if the anxiety persists, a person may beat themselves up. Consider this the ‘C’ or consequences phase. This phase will cause a person to** ruminate over things they could or should have said (or did say or do) and wished they hadn’t.** They ignore the positives completely and amplify what they consider went wrong.
How to turn things around?Well, let’s take things in order. During the A phase, it is far more useful to use some form of relaxation technique. Eileen Bailey has provided a helpful post on guided imagery as an exercise. Using imagery to replace worry is a good way to rehearse positive scenarios in your mind.** During the B phase**, self-focus has to be replaced with being more outward looking. Make an effort to look at people. What are they wearing?Listen to what they are saying. How are they standing or behaving? Do they look comfortable or not? These techniques take the emphasis away from you. You may still feel a bit uncomfortable, but with time and practice this will lessen.
Now on to the C phase. This time I’d recommend you write down only what went well. Your focus needs to shift from negative speculation to all the positives. Commit to repeating this or similar experiences. Confidence comes with practice. Finally, give yourself a reward.
(1) Social Anxiety Disorder. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. http://www.adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder. Accessed April 05, 2016
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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.