The tyranny of social anxiety
How to overcome social anxiety
Many of us have been in social scenarios where we feel some degree of stress or anxiety, when it comes to expressing ourselves to others, interacting with strangers or presenting our ideas and opinions in groups. This is quite natural. We want to know that we are accepted for being ourselves and won’t be judged or rejected by others when we participate in groups and want to belong. Such anxiety may provoke strong feelings of stress and vulnerability, which cause us to behave defensively, avoid social contact or withdraw from being seen in public.
Social anxiety is a kind of phobia, in which a person has an excessive and disproportionate fear of social situations where they feel exposed to the preconceptions of others. A person might feel a high degree of self-consciousness which arises from being closely observed, judged and criticised by others, even when there is no objective evidence to suggest this is happening. The feeling may arise from fantasies of being shamed or humiliated in public, or from memories of being criticised and bullied during childhood by parents, teachers and peers. It can even come from overly anxious parents who smothered us emotionally, held back our independence or kept us insulated from daily challenges.
A person with social anxiety is afraid that he or she will make embarrassing mistakes, fail spectacularly or look bad in front of others. This kind of anxiety may be made worse by difficulty expressing opinions and feelings, a lack of social skills or a fear of confrontation. People may avoid situations where they are alone in groups, cling to friends in public or experience separation anxiety when they are left somewhere by a parent or significant other. The anxiety can quickly escalate into panic attack. As a result of an intense fear response, the person endures extreme distress, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations and an inability to speak or ask for what they need to relieve the panic. The walls come closing in.
This is also often accompanied by suffering "anticipatory" anxiety – which means experiencing distress long before the anticipated event happens. In many cases, the person is aware that their anxiety is unreasonable, yet feels powerless to overcome it. Instead their thoughts start racing as they suffer from distorted thinking, a need to predict problems before they arise and holding false beliefs about the opinions of others. Without treatment social anxiety can have a devastating effect on a person's daily routines at school, work and in intimate relationships.
What are the symptoms of social anxiety?
- Fear of rejection.
- Being the centre of attention.
- Separation anxiety when left alone.
- Extreme feelings of self-consciousness.
- Fear of confrontation or conflict.
- Anxiety about speaking on the phone.
- High degree of sensitivity to criticism.
- Fear of speaking or presenting in public.
- Paranoid thoughts about other people opinions.
- Fear of being persecuted or victimised by others.
- Excessive and repetitive patterns of avoidance behaviours.
- Fantasies of being blamed, humiliated or shamed in groups.
- Disproportionate worry about danger to self and loved ones.
- Panic attacks – flight and fight response in unfamiliar situations.
- Defensive behaviours, including outbursts of anger and irritability.
Despite the crippling fear this brings and the compelling belief that things will never change, all these social situations can be managed if you learn how to stand back from a situation, regulate your emotional responses, tolerate the stimuli causing anxiety and reflect on your psychological states or have a more constructive internal dialogue. Below are four steps to relieving yourself of social anxiety. They will not remove the triggers, or stop us feeling anxiety, but they can really help you manage the symptoms and sensations more effectively so you can respond and manage your experiences, by reducing the intensity of your stress.
Identifying feelings and sensations. In the first stages of anxiety there will be certain indicators that give you an early warning system. The first step involves creating a pause between the ‘trigger’ and the ‘response', to become conscious of the sensations, feelings and thoughts present in your experience. It's often tempting to ignore unpleasant thoughts and feelings, or dismiss them and tell yourself to toughen up. Or even get caught up in the drama of an apparent crisis before it really becomes one. So the aim of this step is to observe feelings of without avoidance, judgement or prejudice. Simply notice what’s happening by identifying the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts you associate with the build-up of anxiety. It helps to voice the question aloud in the present moment: ‘what is happening to me now?'
Standing back from a situation. This step can be taken as an act of self-talk, which asks you to step back from a situation before you get caught up in events. It means checking in with yourself before entering a social situation and listening to a gentle, measured, reassuring tone while talking yourself down. You may also do this by taking a breath, blinking your eyes, grounding yourself, standing upright and dropping your shoulders to release any tension. This allows you to step back from anxiety and observe what's happening before acting impulsively.
Acceptance of feelings. The next step is to allow difficult sensations and experiences to exist without trying to change them immediately. Often you may do this by:
Fighting – using anger to protect and defend ourselves.
Escaping – running away from a situation.
Avoiding – doing everything in our power to avoid coming into contact with others.
Reassurance – seeking the comfort and reassurance of others.
Placating – passively trying to please others before a perceived attack.
Instead of fighting feelings off or avoiding situations you may need to observe it first and allow yourself time and space to process intense emotions. This means developing self-talk which supports your intention to tolerate the experience just as it is. Mentally welcoming the presence of an emotion in order to appreciate and understand it better. Or giving permission to the feelings and thoughts that arise in your consciousness before processing them and moving on.
Evaluating the options available. This means objectively evaluating your response to social anxiety with a range of options available to you. Thinking of different approaches rather than relying on old, tired formulas for reacting, or automatic defences. By regaining a sense of balance and realising that social anxiety is an inevitable part of life as we negotiate our needs and boundaries with others. Asking yourself questions like: Are there other versions of the truth, besides my own? Can I see things from other people's point of view? Do I need to rely on other people’s view of me? Could I respond differently?
Letting go. This means detaching yourself as a person from the experience you are having. The final practice is not so much an active response to conflict as consciously letting go and withdrawing. Detaching yourself, means that through identifying, pausing, accepting and being curious about your experience, you become aware that you are not the sensation or emotion that is causing you distress and you can let it go now. It means you have ceased to identify yourself with the feelings as if they were fixed or permanent and you allow yourself to let go of the feeling, allowing it to pass and move on.
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About Gregori Savva
I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, Enduring Mind. I've been profoundly affected by my work with other people as a psychotherapist, anthropologist and writer. I'm captivated by the interior lives of others and the cultures they live in.