Social anxiety is an irrational fear of the judgement of others. Most of the clients that I have worked with that have suffered from social anxiety have told me that they worry intensely about what others think of them.
When you have social anxiety, you tend to focus inwards on how you are coming across to others. Focusing inwards is what makes social anxiety worse. Imagining yourself being awkward around others, blushing, shaking or whatever behaviours tend to emerge, only makes someone with a social anxiety feel more anxious.
Socialise more as avoidance makes social anxiety worse
Social anxiety can have a extremely destructive effect on someone’s life. What tends to happen when someone has social anxiety is that they avoid social interactions. Sadly the more someone avoids being around others, the less they get to test their fears out in reality.
What our brains tell us is often far worse than the actual event. Many many times, clients have agonised for days over an upcoming social event. They have had thoughts such as:
What if no one likes me?
What if people find me boring?
What if I embarrass myself?
Something is bound to go wrong and I will look a fool.
Thoughts aren’t facts
The above examples of thoughts are typical of someone who has social anxiety. They fear judgement of others and feel that they will not measure up. For many, they have a core belief that others are more confident and more capable than they are. Of course, this is probably not true and it is just a typical thought that is based on fears and insecurities. Thoughts are not facts – only possibilities.
It is only through taking small steps to spend time around people that social anxiety will ease. It really is about facing your fears but you can start small.
For instance, just getting out of the house would be a great step in the right direction. Perhaps get out the house and walk near where other people might be. Your next step could be going to sit alone in a coffee shop and just see what people are doing. People watching can be a lot of fun.
Next, perhaps you could join an online forum and start chatting to people online. Once you feel comfortable chatting to people online perhaps you could move to the real world and invite somebody to meet you for a coffee. We all have to move at our own pace but gradually improving the way we relate to others will help reduce social anxiety.
Focus externally when in social situations
The key with social anxiety is to focus externally rather than internally. Most people with social anxiety will be constantly worried about how they’re coming across. They will worry that they look awkward or that people will see that they are nervous. It takes practise but it is important to direct your attention externally onto others and the environment.
Focus on the room and what you can see in the room, are there curtains, are the windows dirty, are there any windows at all, and so on. The less you focus on yourself the less anxiety you will experience. Keep your brain busy with what’s going on around you.
Recently a client had to go in and do group work at university and they were really stressed about this as they have been doing a lot of their coursework online. They didn’t sleep the night before and they were extremely stressed about going into university. I had mentioned that the anticipatory thoughts would be far worse than the actual event and this is exactly what happened.
Thoughts are often worse than reality
People did not reject my client or say anything negative and the experience was far better then what my client’s thoughts were telling them. It’s important to separate yourself from your scary thoughts. Our brains try to keep us safe by thinking about every possible eventuality in order to come up with a plan. The problem with this strategy is that there is not much that you can do ahead of time apart from perhaps repeating positive coping statements to yourself. Positive coping statements such as the reality will be better than my thoughts are telling me it will be. I am safe and I will end up in my bed this evening after the scary event and life will go on. Or: I have socialised in the past and it was fine and this will be the same.
Dismiss negative thoughts
Tell yourself whatever works for you but don’t buy into the negative thoughts as they are rarely accurate. Speak out loud to yourself if you need to. You could say something like “there my brain goes again trying to scare me” – see your thoughts as separate to you and learn to dismiss the anxious thoughts. They rarely predict what will happen and the only purpose they serve is to scare you out of your wits.
Be present in the world rather than focusing inwards
Instead try to stay mindful and focus on what is real in life rather than the thoughts that will probably never come true. For most of us our minds are very busy scaring us about life. Don’t believe everything your mind serves up to you. Distract yourself if necessary but try not to stay in your head when it is scaremongering. We have about 80 000 thoughts per day and only 15-20% of your daily thoughts are useful, the rest is just ‘noise’.
The more you get out and the less you avoid, the more confident you will become. Sure, there will be pain in facing your fears but that pain of getting through the anxiety will bring you pleasure in the end. Imagine being able to go to a party and not being overly stressed ahead of time.
Instead of the fearful negative thoughts try talking to yourself in a compassionate manner:
Here are some examples:
I am good company. I am kind, non-judgemental, I am funny etc
Why wouldn’t someone want to spend time with me?
Ways to calm down
If you feel really anxious, breathing slowly and deeply can help calm your body. We call them grounding techniques – to help your body to stop being in threat mode. When we feel in danger (even if we aren’t) our body will release adrenalin and cortisol and we might being to hyperventilate, feel we have a dry throat, sweaty palms etc.. Grounding helps the body to remove the feeling of danger.
Breathe in slowly and count to 4, hold your breath and count to four, breathe out slowly and count to 4 and then hold your breath again to the count of four.
Breathing slowly helps the brain to switch off danger-mode and tells our brain that the danger has passed. You can breathe quietly and deeply no matter where you are so give it a try.
Social anxiety doesn’t have to be your master. You can take your power back and see others as less scary than your thoughts are telling you. Others are often anxious too and many will be thinking the same as you – we all want to be liked and fit in. Focus on being friendly, shoulders back, smile and appear approachable and you will find that people are actually quite nice. There is more awareness now around Mental health and most people are very understanding and accommodating. If they aren’t – it says something about them, not you.
So be brave, take small steps to bring people into your life and don’t expect the worse. Ignore your negative thoughts and do your best to live your life in spite of them.
If you feel you need added help, I offer therapy for social anxiety – get in touch and we can arrange a session. Life is so much better when we have good people in our lives.