When Tina took her first job out of college, she thought she could circumvent most of the social events it required. They were not part of her main responsibilities. But three months into it, her company experienced major restructuring, and she was assigned new responsibilities that involved more interaction with people. Her worries increased. She knew that her social anxiety could get in the way of her career.
Ever since she was a child, Tina had developed extreme fear that others would judge her words and actions whenever she was in social situations. She had two close childhood friends. One had gotten married, and the other had moved away. She felt lonely and had not been able to develop more friendships. She hoped to someday get married, but at this point, she felt hopeless. Social situations frightened her so much that she didn’t participate in any social activities other than her job, where she tried to hide her anxiety. Up to that point, she had managed to do the minimum necessary to function in her world.
Social phobia is a pervasive disorder that afflicts about 15 million adults in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The ADAA also reports that 36 percent of social anxiety disorder sufferers experience symptoms for 10 or more years before seeking treatment for the disorder. It has been reported that many individuals stay away from treatment as it involves social contact — which is very painful for them — even though psychotherapy treatment is critical in learning skills to manage their difficulties.
Before treatment, Tina had tried several strategies, such as trying to control her thoughts and feelings. She tried to tolerate (white-knuckle) certain social situations, but doing that only exhausted her for days. She mostly tried to avoid situations and had resigned herself to a lonely and unhappy life.
Fortunately, we know that sufferers can learn skills to manage their social anxiety. If you struggle with social anxiety, consider the following strategies that may help you start taking small steps in the right direction:
- Objectify social anxiety.
Objectifying the anxious mind can be an effective way to provide empowerment and hope. Consider the following questions as you do this: If you could see anxiety, what would it look like? If you could touch it, what texture would it have? If anxiety made a sound, what sound would it make? What would it smell like? Does it have vibrations? Does it have a temperature? If you were to create this creature into a 3D figure, what would you end up with and why?
Tina was invited to create the anxious mind in a 3D figure. She was able to express how social anxiety felt like for her. Tina expressed how the anxious mind presented her with all the possibilities that could go wrong in social situations, “People are going to notice you are sweating.” “If you shake hands with someone, they’ll think you are lame because you have sweaty hands. They’ll probably think you are dumb and ugly!” The comments were nonstop and the more she paid attention to them, the more anxious she became.
As Tina objectified the anxious mind, she realized that staying in her comfort zone and safety mode only provided short-term relief. Tina discovered that she had alternatives to ignoring, controlling, avoiding, fighting, or obeying it. When Tina treated the anxious mind as separate from herself, she was able to observe it without reacting to the thoughts produced by it. She found it easier to acknowledge what the anxious mind was saying and was able to gently shift her focus to what was important in her life.
Next time the anxious mind proclaims thoughts that indicate something contrary to your values and goals, consider acknowledging it by saying, “Thanks, mind, we’ll see.” Then gently focus on the present moment of your valuable life.
- Vocalize your thoughts.
Saying your thoughts aloud a few minutes every day will increase your thought awareness. For example, as you get ready in the morning or drive to work, take a minute or two to think out loud. Try to create a habit of doing this every day. Whatever the mind is saying, vocalize it.
As you create the habit of listening to your thoughts, you will increase awareness that will enable you to recognize that all thoughts are just that — thoughts.
Becoming aware of the thoughts the mind produces and how you respond are essential steps in a journey toward a more meaningful life.
- Don’t fight nature.
When individuals experience anxiety, the fight-or-flight response is set in motion. This is the body’s natural response for survival. If you lived in the jungle and you felt threatened by a predator, you’d be glad this response works well. However, when you are in social situations and you experience the same response, you probably interpret it as a horrible experience.
Thus, the next time you are in a social situation and the anxious mind says you are in danger, ask the mind, “Hi mind, where is the lion?” Then literally, look for the lion in the crowd. You won’t find it. The lion is at the zoo, circus or jungle.
Noticing that there is no lion and that you are literally not in danger will help you remember that it’s the fight-or-flight response that was set in motion by the anxious mind. Then you can decide whether to believe it, or to acknowledge what the anxious mind is saying, and then gently shift to the present moment. Your present moment may be your awareness of your breathing or becoming fully aware of your surroundings with your senses.
Changing thinking patterns requires patience, work, diligence and consistency. It is possible. Don’t give up. The hard work will absolutely be worth it.
Shy girl photo available from Shutterstock