What’s your first step towards moving past a hurdle? An internal barrier that appears without warning, pops up repeatedly, and blocks you from being the real you. First, you need to recognize that it’s in the way of where you want to go in life. When it comes to living with social anxiety, it’s very common to hide and deny the experience all together. Or to minimize how it limits you.
Thinking back, I view Social Anxiety as being both a great difficulty and gift in my life. For a while, it prevented me from feeling free to show up and totally be myself in any situation. Overtime it’s also proven to be a blessing as a therapist. It’s given me a deeper level of empathy and understanding for how hard it can be for a person to face personal struggles and to make a change.
Learning to Ride the Anxiety Wave
It all began with an embarrassing experience freshman year of high school, when I blanked out during a French presentation. This experience resulted in shame and subsequently, very high anxiety in response to any type of public speaking situation. A specific fear gradually turned into a more generalized fear of random social situations. Being fair-skinned, whenever I began to feel really hot or felt that I was starting to blush, it typically triggered anxiety. Underneath the physical sensations, I had worries about being judged and an underlying desire to appear perfect on the outside.
As a teen, I recognized that my fears were in the way. I looked into the future and imagined that if I kept avoiding certain situations, life would get narrower and narrower. I was frustrated and tired of my struggle but also unwilling to let it have power over my decisions. I somehow realized that I needed to tackle my fears head on in order to reach my goal to be a psychologist.
I could have chosen another path but instead I found help and opened up. I learned valuable tools to manage my symptoms and then took trusted advice to intentionally put myself in the situations that triggered me. The more practice I got with being uncomfortable, I was even able to experience much enjoyment and satisfaction from what I once dreaded! I discovered a hidden passion for speaking to large groups, a joy I easily could have missed out on completely.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social Anxiety can be understood as: anxiety in at least some social situations due to belief that rejection is likely due to perceived flaws in: social skills or behavior, inability to hide signs of anxiety, physical appearance, and/or personality. Although the specific triggers and underlying fears vary from person to person, there are common automatic thoughts, anxious feelings, & avoidance behaviors that come along with the experience including:
Thoughts: common automatic thoughts that go through your mind when presented with personal social anxiety triggers- often familiar, repetitive, automatic (common themes: fears of being judged negatively, unrealistic belief that rejection will be horrible)
Emotions: feeling embarrassed, humiliated, self-conscious, worried, panicky, nervous, frightened, a general feeling of danger.
Physical Sensations: sweating, blushing, detached from reality, shaky voice, pounding heart, tightness in chest, nausea, stomach discomfort, tingling/numbness in extremities, muscle tension, feeling hot or cold, shortness of breath, dizziness, throat tightness.
Actions: avoidance is the most common and ineffective action taken. Avoiding anxiety triggers is a short-term solution that often results in feeling more isolated, discouraged, and depressed overtime.
Some Level of Social Anxiety is Normal, When Is It A Problem?
Humans are innately social beings. It’s normal to have some degree of anxiety when attending a new or unfamiliar social experience, as it’s a sign that you care about your interactions with others. It becomes problematic when it begins to prevent you from doing certain things, starts to interfere with you daily life, or causes clinically significant suffering. When the level of anxiety reaches a moderate to severe level, anxiety is likely significantly impacting one’s functioning. In these circumstances, individuals can greatly benefit from seeking professional support.
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway + Move Towards Triggers
When working with clients who struggle in this area, I explain that one of the most important components of effective treatment is exposure. You need to learn that you can get through these frightening experiences, and that you can manage the feelings and thoughts that come up. There are many ways to gain gradual exposure to your fears, such as the experience of being in therapy.
Therapy itself is a social experience. It consists of a back and forth conversation, similar to everyday social experiences in the real world (except it’s confidential). I like to describe it as a sounding board and a safe supportive atmosphere for testing out new and more effective communication patterns.
Much healing and relief can occur from laying out your automatic thoughts, hearing them aloud, and recognizing the ways in which they’re limiting and often unrealistic/irrational. Once you’re able explore your thoughts and feelings with a lens of self-compassion, change can occur.
7 Tips for Overcoming Social Anxiety
1. Accept it. Acknowledge that it’s impossible to get rid of anxiety altogether. And even if you could, it isn’t in your best interest- there are some advantages to having some anxiety (it keeps you prepared, on time, most importantly it’s a sign that you care and you’re a human).
2. Breathe It Out. Think of anxiety as being energy in your body. When the body feels anxious, it becomes tense and you often forget to take in enough oxygen to let the anxious energy flow out. The body can’t be both relaxed and anxious at once. Placing the focus on your breath will help to clear your mind and lessen your anxiety.
3. Don’t Believe Every Thought You Have. Thinking isn’t reality. Automatic thoughts are just that, automatic. Social anxiety often contains thought distortions (thought patterns that are negative, self-critical, exaggerated, inflexible/rigid and usually very convincing). Start to become aware of these maladaptive thoughts and look for evidence to support or disprove the validity. Begin to challenge and replace them with more realistic thoughts.
4. Quit Trying to Be Perfect. There’s no such thing as having no flaws or being socially perfect! Even if you were able to achieve such perfection, you likely wouldn’t be very relatable or fun to hang out with. Humans are naturally awkward at times, and so are some social situations. All you can do is be yourself. Drop the bar for any unrealistic rigid standards for your performance. Let go of the need to appear any sort of way.
5. Healthy Self-Management. Once you’ve acknowledged your experience with compassion and without judgment, you can better manage your symptoms. It’s very helpful to turn your attention towards something calming. There’s mental and behavioral ways to self-soothe. Mental strategies include: visualization, recalling a positive mental image (a peaceful place you’ve visited, the face of a pet, baby, person who brings you comfort), rehearsing a calming self-statement like “this too shall pass.”
Some behavioral strategies include: progressive muscle relaxation (a simple technique of tensing and relaxing various parts of the body), taking a brisk walk or any form of exercise, deep-breathing, washing your face with cold water, or holding a worry stone.
6. Face Fears Gradually. The problem isn’t the actual experience of anxiety in a certain social situation, rather it’s whether you go out of your way to avoid that situation. Avoiding situations that make you uncomfortable may provide relief in the short-term, but avoiding is what maintains anxiety and makes it stronger over time. At your own pace, begin to show up to the experiences that trigger you with an intention of “mindfully getting through it.” Schedule in regular opportunities to gain more exposure to fears (e.g., set weekly goal to make a certain # of phone calls, attend social events, initiate a conversation, raise your hand at work meetings, volunteer to give a presentation…)
7. Share Your Experience. Although it’s tempting and understandable to want to hide your anxiety (as it’s common to hold shame due to believing it’s a weakness), it’s more harmful and isolating to suppress your emotions. It can be very helpful to open up and express what you’ve been going through to someone you trust. Remember that reaching out for support is a sign of inner strength, not weakness. Once you start putting words to your experience, you open the door for other positive changes to follow (more social support, stronger and more authentic relationships).