Social anxiety or social phobia is the disabling fear of one or more specific social situations, wherein an individual fears that they may be exposed to the scrutiny and negative evaluation of others, or that they may act in a publicly embarrassing or humiliating manner. These situations could include public speaking, meeting new people, eating or writing in public, using public restrooms, being the centre of attention, going on a date or even making phone calls.
Research has shown that there are myriad variables at play in the process of developing and maintaining social anxiety, including:
– genetic and temperamental factors
– evolutionarily-based predispositions
– learned behaviors
– cognitive variables, and
– perceptions of uncontrollability and unpredictability
At the core of social anxiety lies the instinctual urge to avoid the situation, as staying in the situation seems to demand enduring great distress.
If you’re struggling with social anxiety, here are 5 ways to help you deal with it:
- Learn to stay. What really drives this condition is the fear of judgment, and the most common response to social situations is typically the very factor that helps maintain the problem: AVOIDANCE. As largely social beings, it is almost impossible for us to evade social situations entirely – and attempting to do so often comes at a cost. Instead of trying to fight it, intentionally join in. It will probably be uncomfortable at first and you will be tempted to leave, but take it as a challenge and stay. Recognise that in order to overcome the fear of social situations you will quite literally need to face them.
- Breathe. Although a seemingly rudimentary technique, deep breathing has long been proven to be one of the most effective strategies to immediately deal with social anxiety. One way in which anxiety manifests in your body is through your breath. Holding your breath or breathing quickly throws off the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body, perpetuating the cycle of anxiety, alongside additional symptoms of dizziness, suffocation, increased heart rate, and muscle tension. These symptoms can be taken care of by consciously slowing down your breathing on a regular basis.
- Question your thoughts. While anxiety may seem largely like a physical experience, it is mainly a psychological one. This means that changing certain thought patterns can change how you perceive and subsequently deal with anxiety-producing situations. CBT practitioners recommend identifying your automatic negative thoughts during social situations, such as “I’ve got nothing interesting to say,” and questioning them by asking yourself “Do I know for sure that I don’t have anything to say?” Most invalid or unhelpful inner beliefs get weeded out once they come under the light of logical reanalysis.
- Participate. When you feel anxious, it is difficult to think about anything other than how uncomfortable you are or what other people are thinking about you. However, if you can make a shift from focusing excessively on yourself to what is happening around you, you are less likely to be feel anxious and more likely to feel connected to your surroundings. Consciously engage yourself in something – it could mean actually joining a conversation and being attentive and genuine, or simply observing your surroundings. The more you participate and familiarise yourself with social situations, the less threatening they will feel.
- Make peace with uncertainty. Being exposed to uncontrollable and unpredictable stressful events may play an important role in the development of social anxiety, and could often lead to submissive behaviors. While it is human to look for certainty and sense in everything we do, life can be quite unpredictable. It is not humanly possible to control everything, least of all what people think about us. Acceptance of this fact is likely to take a lot of pressure off you. Your best bet is to stay true to yourself and keep going.
Each of these strategies covers a different aspect of the problem — dealing with physical symptoms, examining our thought processes, changing our attitudes, and so on. However, when dealing with the complex set of emotional and physical reactions that social anxiety entails, the key is to start simple and take things one step at a time.
As with most other fears, before you can take a real step, you have to stop running.
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