How to manage social anxiety
Anyone who suffers with social anxiety (SA) will recognise some or all of these unpleasant symptoms; being highly anxious ahead of a social engagement, a racing heart, sweaty hands, nausea and an upset tummy, not to mention confused thinking.
SA is NOT feeling a light flutter of adrenaline when you meet someone for the first time or speak in public. It is debilitating, paralysing and unless treated properly is likely to persist. If you have a friend or colleague who cancels on social events at the last minute it may be worth considering whether they have SA.
No matter how ordinary or how extraordinary a person is they look at themselves in the same way if they suffer from SA. Even celebrities can be affected. Barbra Streisand and Kim Basinger reportedly have issues with SA. As with all sufferers they will be highly self-critical and super self-conscious.
To someone who does not suffer from SA it can sound as if they are self-absorbed. But those with SA are not self-absorbed but fearful.
Believe me anyone suffering from this form of anxiety would rather be the life and soul of any party. This is how sufferers traditionally think:
- “Others will think I’m weird”
- “I am not interesting”
- “I am not entertaining”
- “No-one will want to sit next to me”
- “People who I talk to will think I’m boring”
Certain ritualistic behaviours often accompany SA. Pre-empting scenarios that may occur at a social event, thinking through what others might say and running through how you might reply are common.
Yet as you run through scenes in your head you will only fuel worry.
The more you prepare, the more anxious you will become of saying or doing something that will have others think you’re weird.
And as if that isn’t problem enough, the majority of sufferers also worry that others will notice symptoms of anxiety such as a sweaty handshake or trembling hands.
What actually happens at the event
In all probability you will try hard to read facial signals from other guests but be fighting an internal negative dialogue that says: ‘ Do I look weird? Is the person I’m talking to desperate to get away and talk to someone else? Do I look like I’m sweating? What will I say next? ‘
Self-medication and social anxiety
These two do not mix. Certainly a stiffener before meeting new people can put you at your ease but remember alcohol cannot help you deal healthily with SA.
What happens after the event?
You will probably have an urge to assess your performance and wonder how you came across to others. In all likelihood you will replay conversations countless times and even check with others who were at the same event as to how you appeared.
However, someone with SA will rarely reflect on the event itself but only how they performed at the event. ‘
They will typically conclude that they were the odd one out and the only one who did not fit in.
Of course if you have a thousand anxious thoughts telling you how to behave and what others might be negatively thinking of you, it is highly likely that you will falter, or stammer or start to show visible signs of distress at a social event.
Will your natural charm and personality shine through? No! You’re giving yourself a really hard time and it’s likely you will withdraw from a conversation and become even further isolated. It need not be that way!
Tips for giving social anxiety a beating
1. Resist any urge to over-prepare
Do not write down a list of topics you might talk about and do not pre-empt how you might handle conversations.
2. Say yes to invitations
This is crucial to getting better. Avoidance is something we tend to do when we are anxious and that only serves to perpetuate the problem.
3. Talk about something that interests you
Those who suffer with SA tend to focus exclusively on trying to be interesting to others. They focus on themselves and how they think they are coming across to others which only increases anxiety. Change your focus to what YOU might like to talk about – for example: a recent movie you saw or an interesting experience you once had.
4. Ask others questions
If you happen to get stuck and feel like withdrawing make yourself ask a question. This will keep you engaged and give you an opportunity to gather yourself together.
5. Ditch the analysis
Just as you need to give up over-prepping, you also need to give up the post-mortem of how you performed. If you would like to review the evening – task yourself to name three things that you appreciated.
6. The anxiety will decrease
However anxious you are it is important to remember that anxiety will always reach a peak and then come down. Whatever you do don’t leave the situation when you are anxious as you will miss the opportunity of experiencing this. The more you socialise, the easier it will get. Keep on approaching what you fear. It feels awful in the moment but give yourself a apt on the back for your determination not to let fear rule you!
7. Everyone is self-obsessed
Remember most people are typically more interested in themselves than anyone else – and that includes you! People also love to talk about themselves so if you run dry of conversation ask a question. Example: Do you like sport? or Have you travelled much?
8. Keep your expectations real
Don’t expect to enjoy social situations while you are getting better, however, as you get stronger and build confidence your enjoyment will follow. Getting better will take some work so remember to congratulate yourself regularly for what you’ve achieved.
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