The 3 stages of shyness and social anxiety
For someone suffering with social anxiety, a forthcoming social event will present three different stages that the sufferer will experience psychologically: The anticipatory phase, exposure to the actual situation itself and post-event processing.
The anticipatory stage
Contemplating the event is likely to make you feel anxious. Your thinking is likely to be biased towards potential threats, making you much less likely to imagine being accepted socially or performing well. You are also more likely to focus on previously embarrassing situations. Such thinking increases perceived threats and heightens your sense of vulnerability, increasing your anticipatory anxiety. Fearing how challenging the situation might be, you opt for the easiest route and try to avoid it completely if you can.
When you cannot avoid the situation, having worried about it beforehand makes you go into it in a heightened state of anxiety. Once there, you are much more likely to be focused on external sources of threat (e.g. being judged by others) and your internal signs of anxiety. As your focus of attention is consumed in this way, you will be much less likely to notice anything that could disconfirm your threat beliefs or detect social cues that you are being accepted. Increased anxiety may make you more likely to adopt inhibitory behaviours (e.g. rigid posture, stuttering, becoming tongue tied). Noticing this and your anxiety may make you more self-critical, assuming them as indicators of your social ineptitude and loss of control. Your worry that others may notice and judge you for being anxious may make you rely on safety behaviours to hide your anxiety and/or help you to cope with being in the situation (e.g. avoid being the focus of attention, rely on alcohol etc.). The downside of such safety behaviours (apart from the damage to your health!) is that they risk disrupting your social performance and increase the risk of others judging you negatively.
Post event processing
The problem isn’t over even though the situation has ended. Social phobics tend to replay situations where they have engaged with others over and over in their minds. Here you will recall every minute detail, evaluating your performance and cringing at the thought of how badly others have received you. Your thought processes are likely to be biased towards any beliefs you may have about yourself and your social ineptitude. You are much more likely to conclude that your performance was much more negative than it really was. The more you ruminate on your performance, the worse you feel about it due to selective focus and your elaboration of possible disapproval and failure. This results in increased feelings of embarrassment and shame, increased anxiety and unsurprisingly an increased urge to avoid social situations.
Social anxiety can be life limiting. If you are struggling with this issue, it is important that you seek help before the problem worsens. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been evidenced extensively to treat social anxiety and NICE guidelines recommend this therapeutic approach as the NHS treatment of choice.
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About Vickie Norris
Vickie Norris MSc, PG dip CBT, PG cert CBT, BA hons.
Vickie is a BABCP accredited CBT psychotherapist with 17 years experience in mental health who specialises in treating anxiety related conditions.