Social Anxiety

social anxietyThere 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.

social anxiety disorderWhere 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.

12 Comments

  1. DMC 12 January, 2017 at 12:52 am - Reply

    I hate been around certain people they make me nervous just their face might do it to me its an awful affliction I have

  2. Mistral 25 May, 2016 at 4:22 am - Reply

    This is the first time i have read me in so much true clarity. Thankyou

    • Anonymous 27 November, 2016 at 12:55 am - Reply

      hi mistral my name is paul and I would like to start a conversation with a friend with a view to staying off drink instead of getting so anxious. My email is paulwhite570@gmail.com

      • Tobin Hunt 3 December, 2016 at 9:30 am - Reply

        In case you missed it, there’s a free support forum on this site – check the top menu bar.

  3. jules murphy 16 October, 2015 at 4:18 am - Reply

    Can’t cope I have so much going on it’s breaking me.

  4. Vanessa 15 September, 2015 at 1:59 am - Reply

    I have to say, unfortunately, I agree with Rebecca, people are very cruel nowadays, and I am one of those people who drinks to ignore the cruelty of the world. It’s crazy because subconsciously I am very confident and I believe that I’m beautiful, smart, etc., but for some reason when I’m around ignorant people, I tend to believe that they are better, when obviously they’re not. I think I do this because I don’t want to seem arrogant or better than everyone else, so in order to ignore this and other people’s opinions, I tend to dumb myself down and drink lots of alcohol. There has not been one social situation that I’ve been in where alcohol wasn’t involved. As a matter of fact, I have to drink in order to tolerate a relationship. I’ve been through so much in my life already and I’m only 21 so I can definitely relate to this article. I have never looked into therapy, but I’m pretty sure it would be helpful, especially because I’m raising a little girl on my own.

  5. David 8 June, 2015 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    I was bullied in School in my formative years I was a slow learner I was put in a class where every one else were A students and I was mocked ridiculed every day for three years so my Brain became wired to believe that I was not worthy to exist , I’ve been to therapy but I still have fear of been around people , I tend to drink to avoid the embarrassment of Social situations .. Social Anxiety has made my life very limited and still does even in my middle 40s I feel like I will never get over it I will always be a social outcast , sad but true….

    • Louise 13 December, 2016 at 8:02 am - Reply

      I had the exact same problem you did. It was quite refreshing to read your story as I never have heard it from anyone else before. Thank you for sharing. If only we could find a resolution!

  6. Rebecca 16 May, 2013 at 4:30 am - Reply

    I think that our ability to tolerate judgement of others depends on how comfortable and confident you are with yourself at the time. Sometimes the feelings you have about yourself fluctuate depending on circumstances, but if you’re confident, you don’t feel anxious at all what other think, but if you’re in a down time it might…and sometimes will affect you significantly. I also believe that the happier you are with yourself, you can laugh at yourself more…and less at others.

  7. Rebecca 24 March, 2013 at 6:01 am - Reply

    I think that it’s a really good article, but I don’t agree that people are as forgiving as you say. I think people criticize one another all of the time. I think that if they like you, they are forgiving and kind, but if they don’t, you’ve not much of a chance. I also think it’s true to say that people are forgiving to a point, but people are also very cruel and cynical. To put it lightly, nice people are forgiving and kind, but there are loads of mean people! I have a small child and if she’s ever bullied, they’ll have me to deal with, that’s for sure!

    • Tobin Hunt 14 May, 2013 at 1:00 pm - Reply

      You’re absolutely right Rebecca, people can be critical and judgemental sometimes, and if we assume they are, then what is the threatening aspect of that? Does it need to make us anxious? Can we perhaps tolerate their judgement?

      • Rebecca 21 May, 2013 at 6:05 am - Reply

        No, teenagers can’t.

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