How to live better with social anxiety
You don’t have to be necessarily experiencing the clinical effects of social anxiety disorder in order to feel unease and discomfort in social situations. Social anxiety disorder (which might also be termed social phobia) is a condition that could be diagnosed by a medical professional and would typically involve a fear of social situations that negatively impacts on everyday activities. But symptoms of social anxiety need not be so pathologised. Sometimes just being human means we will feel anxious without necessarily having a mental health condition.
Going to noisy restaurants, parties, even travelling on public transport, can bring about emotional unease and discomfort from social triggers. Triggers are what happens when other people or things start to annoy you and unbalance your emotional equilibrium. Now that the opening up economy is well and truly upon us, and we are readjusting to the regularity of social situations, we are perhaps more sensitive to being around other people and maybe more susceptible to being triggered.
Anxiety tends to get worse when we seek to avoid or control our environment. On public transport we might have our favourite seat but we are powerless over who comes to sit next to us. In restaurants we might have our preference for a certain location, whether that is in the corner, or on a round table, or away from a noisy part of the establishment.
People who do not suffer from the symptoms of social anxiety often won’t mind where they are seated or who they are seated next to. They often just turn up and are content to be seated wherever they are allocated by the front of house staff.
When people with anxiety think about a trip to the restaurant they might start to think about the travel journey and what might go wrong. They will then start to speculate where the table will be located in the restaurant and the impact of other diners in their immediate vicinity.
We get triggered when we depart from the tolerable zone of emotional comfort we experience on a day to day basis. Within the zone of emotional toleration we may still have some form of unease or slight discomfort with our social environment, but it is manageable. Being triggered means we experience a shock to our system of emotional regulation. The discomfort we experience does not feel tolerable any more. In that moment we begin to feel like the given situation is intolerable.
On a train or in a restaurant we might get triggered by the noise of others, or what we perceive to be their threatening behaviour, and we start to experience the discomfort associated with our flight/flight/freeze system getting activated. We might feel uneasy, on edge and irritable.
Fear and anger (perhaps if we sense that others are ruining our event or occasion) is typically associated with up-regulation. Sadness and guilt (if we start to self sabotage in such situations) is more associated with down-regulation. When we are triggered like this the key is that we employ our personal resources to help us return to our tolerable zone, when we experience people, places and things as being okay. The world might not be perfect but okay. Any discomfort is manageable.
Learning how to relax better in social situations by becoming more aware of the negative potential of our social triggers is key. What are the things that trigger us? A trigger can be internal or external, including sights, smells, certain sounds, and emotions.
Gaining psychological insight is to get to know yourself better. Are your triggers, for example, emanating from the noise from others, loud music, too many people talking at once, people smoking, drinking or engaging in excessive nervous energy? Anxiety triggers tend to be other people, being in certain places, or experiencing anything that may cause an anxiety response.
Over time your brain has adapted and learned to deal with such triggers as dangerous and hence you might experience acute symptoms of anxiety like, for example, muscle tension, gastrointestinal upset, racing heart, and shortness of breath. This in turn will impact on your behaviour when you might seek to avoid a situation, or overly plan, so that you don’t have to feel the anxiety. Examples of behavioural responses might be going to a restaurant the day before to check where your table will be located, arriving early on the day in case you need to move tables, scanning the room to check who might be the annoying people, or actually not going at all.
The work in therapy could be to first identify what your social triggers are, as awareness is a vital step towards transformation, then assess your past emotional wounding and how your fight/flight system developed over time.
What are the parts of you that feed your inner critic or your internal anxious bully? What is your self care regime and what are you not doing that keeps you feeling well? What is lacking from your social support structure? Addressing these questions can help to build your personal resourcing so that you can deactivate future triggering events more quickly in order to better enjoy social situations.