Tackling Social Anxiety

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man feeling socially anxiousJust about everyone will experience an element of tension and apprehension when anticipating their involvement in an upcoming social, work or family occasion. This can especially be the case if that occasion is going to involve one or more of the following:

  • Meeting people you have never met before.
  • Going to a place/venue you have never been to before.
  • Attending or taking part in an event that you have little or no experience of.

That feeling of slight tension often times can be very constructive. It can help the brain to focus and prompt consideration about preparing to get the best out of attending that social interaction.

The nervous energy generated may prompt you to book in a haircut, buy a new shirt, organise a lift to and from the event, or even plan who you are going to attend the occasion with. Helping you feel more ready to engage with and get the best out of that social occasion.

For some though, the levels of mental pressure and/or emotional distress activated by the prospect of engaging in a social activity or occasion can be so intense that it can:

  • Call on them to utilise a huge amount of mental and emotional energy to force themselves to attend.
  • Call on them to utilise a huge amount of mental and emotional energy during their attendance at the social occasion to stop themselves from retreating (often severely limiting their participation in, and enjoyment of that occasion).
  • Prompt them to not attend some or all social occasions (especially those featuring someone, somewhere, or something new to them) because the unsettling thoughts and feelings activated seem too much to deal with.

Now there is no law saying you have to be social. Some people are naturally more introvert and socially contained. If that is you, and you are not going to certain social occasions you are invited to because you genuinely do not want to that is fine.

What is not fine though is you not attending social occasions you might like to because of the high amounts of mental and emotional stress that are activated at the prospect of doing so.

In these circumstances, your actions are not being driven by genuine choice, they are being driven by fear. That fear is then stopping you from doing what you want, and having the opportunity to enrich your life by meeting new people, going to new and exciting places, and trying out new experiences that you may actually really enjoy.

What is Social Anxiety

If you experience high levels of mental and emotional distress activated by the prospect of social interactions, gatherings or occasions, it may be that you are currently affected by social anxiety.

Note the use of the word current here. Key to remember is even if you have been socially anxious for a good portion of your life, that can always be changed, and there are lots of steps you can take to ease that tension and do more of what you really want to do.

The NHS website defines social anxiety as: “A long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations.”

The site notes that symptoms of someone affected by social anxiety can include:

  • Worry about everyday activities, such as meeting strangers, starting conversations, speaking on the phone, working or shopping.
  • Avoiding or worrying a lot about social activities, such as group conversations, eating with company and parties.
  • Worry about something you think could be embarrassing such as blushing, sweating or appearing socially incompetent.
  • Finding it difficult to do things when others are watching.
  • Avoiding eye contact with others.
  • Having physical symptoms like feeling sick, trembling or having chest palpitations.
  • Having panic attacks where you have an overwhelming sense of fear and anxiety.

You may well recognise yourself as having experienced some of those symptoms at the thought of a social occasion, that does not mean you are affected by social anxiety. We all get those feelings and thoughts sometimes.

It is a question of considering the frequency, severity, and debilitating effects in your life, and also how long anxiety provoked by social occasions and interactions has been with you in your life.

What Can Contribute to the Development of Social Anxiety

There can be mean reasons why an individual can have intense mental and emotional distress activated at the prospect of a social occasion or social interaction. These can include:

Family Traits and Patterns: It may be that there is a pattern in your family of family members being affected by anxiety. This may not even be down to inherited predisposition to the condition, often times if you have grown up watching someone else avoid social interactions, this unconsciously might provoke the development of the same avoidance habits in you.

Brain Structure: Your amygdala is a part of your brain that helps to regulate strong emotions such as fear and aggression. It is thought that this part of the brain is responsible for continual scanning of your environment to identity, assess, and react to potential ‘threats’ to your survival and wellbeing.

It a ‘threat’ is perceived (real or imagined) to a person’s wellbeing, what is known as the fight-flight-freeze response can kick in. This can lead to the body being flooded with adrenaline to prepare the body for attack. However sometimes the amygdala can either overestimate the potential for ‘threat’ and/or react too strongly based on the likely adverse impact.

Ideally when your fight-flight-freeze response is activated, your prefrontal cortex (responsible for brain functions such as decision making, reasoning and impulse control), will step in to help assess if the ‘threat’ is valid, and help you to think things through, and decide on a proportionate, considered reaction.

However sometimes if the fear reaction in the amygdala is extremely strong, it can lead to amygdala hijacking. Whereby the functions of the prefrontal cortex are overridden, which can lead to illogical or irrational overreactive behaviours.

Some people can be born with an amygdala reaction that is more sensitive that the average person. Others can find that their fight-flight-freeze response becomes more heighted as a result of trauma or adverse life experiences. If you have had a past trauma, sometimes this part of your mind goes on high alert to try to avoid you being ‘caught out’ again by a traumatic or adverse experience.

Poor Self-Concept: If you have very low levels of positive belief in your own abilities, skills, talents, and/or your worth and likeability as a person, you can be prone to develop negative core beliefs about yourself which may adversely impact on your beliefs and interpretation on your social aptitude. If you have developed for example the strongly held belief that you are shy or socially awkward, it may influence your inferences and behaviours to reinforce and prove this negative belief about self.

Past Adverse Social Experiences: You may hold in your mind a memory of a past social experience where you felt out of your depth, or you did not act in a manner you would have liked. Often times these memories are used as proof to reinforce that negative core belief that you are socially inept. Is that fair?

Nobody is socially perfect all the time, most of us have done, and will make the odd social blunder, which is perfectly fine. It is often from making mistakes socially, that you can reflect, learn and improve for the next time.

Just about everyone has had an experience at some point in their social life of: feeling like they said the wrong thing or did not know what to say; being a little too tipsy; dancing badly; wearing the wrong thing; turning up late or feeling uncomfortable about approaching people.

It may be that you are being unfair on yourself by judging your current or future social abilities based on your past social self.

Do you judge your other current life skills such as your ability to drive, cook, manage money or do your job based on what your skill level was in that area years ago?

The Social Anxiety Cycle

Whatever the reasons why your sense of social anxiety has developed, you can get into a cycle of avoidance behaviour that can help keep it going.

If you are fearful of doing anything social, you may then decide to not put yourself out there to engage in social experiences as this might feel like the safest and easiest option. In effect you are exercising the ‘flight’ option from the fight-flight-freeze response (running away from the prospect of a potentially anxiety inducing social interaction).

The drawback of this is that by not engaging in that social occasion, you do not get the chance to engage in a socially positive way, and gather ‘evidence’ to disprove any negative core belief that your shy or social inept. You also do not get the chance to try out a new social experience and find out that you actually liked it.

How to Make Positive Changes and Be More Social

If you have a more heighted amygdala reaction than the average to social ‘threats’, or your core belief about your social ability is low, or you have gotten into a behavioural pattern of social avoidance, there is lots you can do to enhance your social confidence and skills.

Positive Self Thinking: Be willing to challenge and let go of any outdated or unfair beliefs and memories that tell you that you are not socially capable. Your mind might find it all too easy to go to thoughts that seem to back up the theory of your social ineptitude, but maybe that is a distorted thinking habit that is not doing you any favours. Try to expand that view of self to a more fair one, by genuinely and fully reflecting back on your social performance, and be just as willing to recognise and recall instances where you behaved in a social competent or appropriate way.

Be Fair on Yourself: It is not about being socially perfect, nobody is perfect. Everyone will feel awkward or uncomfortable at times in social occasions. Another thinking bad habit can be distorting things by imagining everyone else at a social occasion is relaxed and confident and you are the only person there feeling nervous. Or you may feel that you have to be perfect in every type of social occasion, but who is?

Maybe you are very social when out to dinner, but do not do so well in a crowded music concert. There can be a tendency to develop ‘all or nothing’ or ‘black and white’ thinking habits about social interactions. Maybe a fairer statement to apply to yourself is that you are better in some social occasions compared to others.

Learn How to Self-Soothe: If you are experiencing some form of amygdala hijacking (where fear is overwhelming reasoning) say in the form of a panic attack, it can be very hard to reason though and work out what is the real level of ‘threat’ and decide what you would like to do.

Helping your mind to relax and letting the prefrontal cortex kick back in again, though techniques such as breathing exercises or mindfulness can give you time and space to mentally settle and think things through.

If your experience of anxiety is very intense you may want to speak with your GP about some form of medication that might help soothe those fear reactions.

Socially Prepare: Often the fear provoking element of a social interaction is the fear of the ‘unknown’ (how will it go, how will you behave etc.). Preparations can help reduce that ‘unknown’ element.

This might include: planning out what you are going to wear; checking out on the internet the venue you are going to; thinking of a few useful social phrases and conversation starters to employ; check out how others have experienced that type of social occasion; or role-playing with a trusted friend social interchanges.

Feeling a bit more in control is a useful tactic to help reduce fear of the ‘unknown’. Nobody can control every aspect of a social occasion, but feeling more prepared and in control of your own social persona and conduct can help alleviate the sense of going into the ‘unknown’.

Behavioural Activation and Desensitisation: Making no attempt to be social will have no positive impact on developing your social aptitude, or in reframing your view about your social self into a positive one. Think about making a plan to become more socially active and then enact it.

It might be that you start small with a trip to the local shops, and then slowly build up to social occasions that you would consider more fear provoking.

The theory is that with each successful social experiment you enact, you will gather ‘evidence’ to disprove any negative core belief about your social self, and the more you do it, the more your amygdala will learn there is nothing to be actually fearful of and it will start to calm.

In Conclusion

There is no doubt that social anxiety can be a very distressing and debilitating experience for anyone to live with, and it can seriously inhibit your potential to live your best possible life.

It is not something you have to live with though, it can be worked on, it can be challenged, and you can with time and effort, shift your beliefs about self, and feel more confident and able to cope with any fear activated by the prospect of social interactions.

Tackling your social anxiety can seem like a daunting prospect, so there is no harm at all in calling in others to help.

It may be you can ask a partner, family member, or trusted friend to help you on your journey. MANN uP can also provide therapeutic support to help you devise and enact your plan. See the Contact page on this site for ways to get in touch with MANN uP and get yourself enrolled into a programme.

As stated, you may also want to consider a chat with your GP about it, it could be for you, medication could be part of the package that helps you unlock your social potential.