There are several factors which contribute to social anxiety, and each of them needs to be addressed for the whole problem to be dealt with.
Lets look at them in turn – firstly there is your belief that other people are highly likely to reject you or judge you negatively, when in fact this is probably an overestimation on your part. People are more forgiving than you think.
So you need to test out how likely this is with some experiments. Start with a situation that’s fairly non-threatening (you’ve probably got some scarier situations you could imagine, but we don’t need to jump in at the deep end). When you’ve thought of a slightly anxiety-provoking social scenario, predict how exactly you think others will judge you, and how will they demonstrate their judgment? What evidence can you gather that they have judged you? Then conduct the experiment (expose yourself to the situation) and compare the results with what you predicted would happen. What can you conclude from this? Most likely it will be that other people aren’t quite as judgmental as you believed them to be, and that in fact it’s almost impossible to tell if they are or not – because you are not a mind-reader.
So this brings us to another aspect of social anxiety disorder – that you accept the judgments you imagine other people are making of you, and you predict that this situation will be intolerable, so much so that you want to avoid it at all costs, which is where the fear and anxiety arise. The truth of the matter is that occasionally people are judgmental, but when they are, although it’s unpleasant, it is tolerable and need not be avoided, hence some of the fear and anxiety associated with it can reduce. However, you will only fully accept this once you’ve experienced it several times without avoiding the situation.
During social interactions, you’ve probably developed several ways in which you try to reduce your anxiety, or make yourself feel safe. These range from the obvious ones (like alcohol), to the more subtle (like rehearsing what you’re going to say beforehand), or more common ones (such as pretending to look at something on your phone). These ‘safety behaviours’ are counter-productive, because they reduce the opportunities for you to learn that social situations aren’t really so threatening. What things make you feel calmer in a social situation? You believe these things ensure your safety, when in fact you’re safe without them.
Where you focus your attention is another important factor in reducing social anxiety. You probably pay close attention to the bodily symptoms of your anxiety when you experience it – you become self-conscious, and this acts as a feedback loop because you judge your own anxiety symptoms, making them seem more alarming to you, and so they get worse.
All the while, you are not focusing on the social situation, not engaging fully in the conversation, thus it becomes harder to read the cues other people are showing you, which can lead you to make further mistakes (stuttering, not understanding what someone said, forgetting their name etc.) It’s important therefore to remind yourself to focus your attention outwards, not on your body.
Evaluate the negative thoughts you’re having at the time which might contribute to your fears. Such thoughts may view the situation as catastrophic, or in ‘black or white’ terms (ignoring the grey areas), and may tend to overgeneralise – for example:
“If I get anxious — then I’m a failure”
“If I blush — people will think I’m weak”
“If I stumble over a word — I’m a loser”
“If I act differently to other people — I must be weird”
“If I lose my train of thought — it shows I’m stupid”
Such thoughts need to be challenged and replaced with more helpful, rational alternatives. This takes practice though, as these thoughts are quite automatic and habitual. Taking the examples above;
“If I get anxious — that’s acceptable”
“If I blush — people will feel compassion”
“If I stumble over a word — I’m normal”
“If I act differently to other people — I’m not one of the herd”
Essentially you need to learn that social situations are not as threatening as you imagine them to be, social mistakes you might make are not as catastrophic as you believe they are.
The goal is not to eradicate anxiety altogether, as that would be abnormal, but to reduce it to tolerable levels. Because actually you can learn to tolerate the discomfort that these situations create for you, and such tolerance can be improved with practice.
Anxiety is not a helpful measure of your social performance. You can feel anxious, and other people will still accept you. Imagine for a moment that you encounter someone who is obviously anxious when they are speaking to you – would you reject them and judge them negatively? No, of course not, and neither would most of the people who meet you.
Other people are not as critical towards you as you are yourself. Hence what you believe people will think about you is more likely to be a reflection of your own self-critical beliefs. And changing that is the subject of another article.