Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Strategies Explained for Overcoming Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is a fear of being in social situations. Underlying this fear is a concern or worry with being judged by other people. Even the most confident of people experience some level of social anxiety when they have to give a speech in front of an audience, sit a job interview or meet their partner’s family for the first time. That’s because these experiences all involve a ‘judgement’ situation, where you are aware that someone is forming an opinion of you. In extreme cases of social anxiety, even simple social interactions like talking to a shop assistant or sitting on a bus next to a stranger can be terrifying. Whether you fall into the mild or more extreme category, it can be difficult to know how to cope with social anxiety.
In fact, social anxiety is so uncomfortable studies have shown people rate dying as less scary than having to give a speech in public! Presumably, this is because of the potential ‘risk’ in public speaking of embarrassment, humiliation, rejection or making a negative impression. People would rather avoid this risk, at all costs!
SIGNS OF SOCIAL ANXIETY
Some signs that you might be socially anxious include:
– Do you feel nervous at social gatherings or parties?
– Do you struggle to share your ideas, opinions or contribute to conversations?
– Do you avoid social invitations, opting to stay at home or only see friends you know really well?
– When the attention is on you, do you find yourself shaking, blushing or sweating?
– Do you have negative thoughts about yourself (I’m stupid, I have nothing to say, I’m boring, people are judging me?)
If you answered yes to some of these questions, then you may be experiencing some social anxiety. And that is totally ok! After all, we all want people to think positively about us. Even if we don’t care about what others think, it’s still important for us to get along with our work colleagues, have the approval of our boss and the validation of our friends. That’s just basic social cooperation, and without it, we live very difficult and alienated lives. But if we care too much about what other people think of us, and this stresses us, or we feel extremely anxious in social situations, then we may have to learn how to cope with social anxiety.
MY SOCIAL ANXIETY STORY
Nearly ten years ago, when I was doing my degree at University, I began to experience the symptoms of social anxiety. The transition from school to university was an overwhelming one and I struggled being in larger classes with strangers, many who I felt were smarter than I was and quite ‘judgy’.
I also felt alone, as I knew nobody and found that the people I met were mostly unfriendly. I began to lose my confidence and eventually my voice. My priority became to protect myself, so I stopped sharing my thoughts, opinions and personality with other people. I went into my shell and that’s basically how I survived.
However, through the process of maturity, as well as doing the necessary self-work as a young adult, I learnt how to cope with social anxiety. This does not mean I no longer have any issues with social anxiety. In fact, I still find myself fighting with the symptoms of social anxiety, sometimes on a daily basis! However, the symptoms no longer cause me the distress that they used to.
One of the reasons I learnt how to cope with social anxiety was through my job as a psychologist. Psychologists always have to meet and talk to new people, and do risk judgement from those people due to the personal nature of our work. The more I practiced doing this, the easier it became. My experience with social anxiety also helped me to empathise with my clients, and the strategies that helped me are what I teach to them in therapy. Some of those strategies (many from cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT) I’ve shared below, so keep reading!
1. STOP AVOIDING YOUR FEARS, AND START FACING THEM
An easy way for social anxiety to take over our lives is by avoiding social situations. If we never have to interact socially, then essentially we are never threatened, and our social anxiety never causes us distress.
But this isn’t a sustainable way to live!
Sooner or later, we are going to have to sit that job interview, attend that party or talk to our boss. And if we have been relying on avoidance, then those situations will be even more stressful and anxiety-provoking then they should be in reality.
The best way to overcome avoidance is by facing our fears. In psychology, this technique is called exposure. The rationale for exposure is that the more you face your fears, the less scary they become. Through repetition of an action, such as going to a party or speaking in class, the less anxiety we will feel. Eventually, the feared and previously avoided behaviour becomes habitual, like brushing our teeth or walking. We barely even notice that we are doing it!
Additionally, exposure challenges our fears. Often, something is more scary in our head than it is in reality. The trick with exposure is to start small, and then build up. For example, if you are anxious to talk to a colleague at work, you can start by smiling at them, then saying hello the next time you see them, then saying “hello, how are you?” followed by a short conversation. When learning how to cope with social anxiety, the key is to build up to the more anxiety-provoking situations, and to gain confidence step by step.
2. FACE YOUR FEARS COURAGEOUSLY (AND ALONE)
Often, when we face our fears, we rely on something or someone to support us. These are called safety-behaviours (because they make us feel safer in the moment). A common safety-behaviour I see are people who go to social events, but then stay in the corner of the room on their phone. By hiding behind their phone they feel safer, but they are also minimising the social interaction, as no one is likely to approach them. So their social anxiety is never challenged!
Safety behaviours protect us from our fears, but they also stop us from fully facing them.
Only by putting away their phone, and joining a group conversation, will that person ever be able to face and overcome their social anxiety.
3. RETRAIN YOUR ATTENTION AWAY FROM YOURSELF
Social anxiety is very much an internal process. It centres on having negative thoughts (what if I embarrass myself? they are probably judging me) and believing those negative thoughts. Those negative thoughts can lead to catastrophic thoughts (I’m going to fail, everyone is going to laugh at me) which can paralyse us and increase our physical symptoms of anxiety (heart racing, sweating, going red, losing our voice). This whole sequence of anxiety is happening entirely in our brains and bodies. And our attention is purely on ourselves, which is making both the anxious thoughts and the physical symptoms worse.
An important strategy to overcome social anxiety is to get out of our own heads and start focusing on what is around us. A good technique is grounding (What can I see/hear/smell/taste/feel) which reorients our attention towards our environment. Another technique is to focus on the person you are talking to (what are they saying? how are they saying it?) and be interested and engaged in whatever they are sharing with you. Watch more on retraining your attention here.
4. PRACTICE ACCEPTANCE
My social anxiety did not magically go away one day. I still can’t control the physical symptoms of anxiety (such as my heart racing or going red) because they are part of the fight-flight-freeze response. The fight-flight-freeze is an evolutionary response generated by the sympathetic nervous system when the brain detects a potential threat in the environment. Historically, that threat used to be tigers and other predators. Now, that threat is social evaluation and judgement (which unfortunately our brains don’t differentiate from a sabre-toothed tiger).
So, when the fight-flight-freeze physical symptoms start during a presentation or a social event, I usually laugh to myself. I know my body is doing its best to protect me from something that is not actually scary or threatening. I use the strategies from acceptance and commitment therapy (read here) and repeat the mantra “I accept what I can’t control, and commit to doing the best I can in this situation.” Most of all I remember that I’m not alone in feeling anxious in this way. Our bodies are literally wired to react to stressful, socially evaluative situations like this! By accepting inwards and redirecting my attention outwards, I’m one step closer to overcoming social anxiety. And you are too.
Article originally posted at https://thefemalebrief.com/how-to-cope-with-social-anxiety/
Head to my blog www.thefemalebrief.com for more posts on overcoming anxiety and other mental health challenges!