Social anxiety is a common issue that affects millions of people. It can be quite debilitating and limit opportunities. People with social anxiety experience excessive nervousness when in the company of others and worry that they might humiliate themselves in some way or do/say something embarrassing. This ‘self focus’ only makes the problem worse.
Those with social anxiety are hypersensitive to criticism from others and worry about how they are coming across. They assume that others are likely to be evaluating them negatively. As a result, people with social anxiety tend to avoid social situations which allows the fears to grow and the social anxiety is reinforced.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is a useful effective therapy for social anxiety as it challenges thoughts about social fears and what others might be thinking and also allows opportunities to test out theories by try out ‘behavioural experiments’. These help to test out predictions and minimise fears.
People with social anxiety tend to use ‘safety behaviours’. These are behaviours that help to reduce the anxiety in the short term but in the long term, they actually help to maintain the anxiety. Using safety behaviours prevents a person from learning healthier longer lasting coping skills. Safety behaviours comprise actions such as: staying in the background, avoiding eye contact, making regular trips to the bathroom or having some other type of ritual to cope in the immediate situation.
Safety behaviours can result in ‘self fulfilling’ prophecies. For example, if we stay quiet in a social situation, we may come across as distant and thereby be ignored by others as we are coming across as unapproachable. This will then reinforce our thoughts that no one likes us and that we are terrible in social situations.
Challenging social anxiety:
Less self focus
Practise focusing externally rather than being overly concerned with yourself. When we feel socially anxious we focus on whether we are blushing or imagine that our nervousness is easy to notice which makes us feel even more anxious. Make an effort to focus your attention on others rather than on yourself.
2. Use approach behaviour
Instead of withdrawing and avoiding, it is essential to start taking small steps towards being around others. The more time we spend with others socially, the more our anxiety will diminish.
3. Challenge negative anxious thoughts
We often tend to ‘mind read’, assuming we know what others are thinking. This is irrational though because unless we ask, we don’t really know what others are thinking. When dealing with clients with social anxiety, they have told me they think others are noticing their imperfections or perceived flaws. Often, they are projecting their own insecurities onto others. For example – if they think they have bad teeth, they will assume others are noticing their teeth and thinking how awful they are. The reality could be completely different. Actually, we are all quite egocentric, in that we are all quite focused on ourselves and so when we assume others are focused on us, they probably aren’t at all.
Always ask if there is evidence to believe a certain thought. Often there won’t be.
4. Reduce safety behaviours
Make a list of safety behaviours such as: I stand in the kitchen at parties; I never talk unless someone speaks to me first, I make regular trips to the bathroom, I avoid social gatherings altogether…
The rate each behaviour out of 10 in terms of how anxious it might make you feel
The start with the items lower on the list – the 1’s, 2’s and 3’s out of ten – use this behavioural hierarchy to start confronting safety behaviours.
Try talking to someone first, rate your anxiety before and after (out of 10) and then make a not of what you predicted might happen (they would laugh and walk away) and what actually happened (the person spoke to me briefly)..in this way we begin to challenge and remove out fears and pre existing thoughts about social situations.
We all experience anxiety, some of us are just better at covering it up. Getting out there and confronting our social anxiety is the best way forward. Social anxiety can be over come.
If you have social anxiety, get in touch. I can help you cope more effectively when in the company of others.