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Have you ever been walking through a public space and then suddenly started to wonder if you were walking weirdly? Or maybe you sat in a crowded room convinced those behind you were judging the way you were sitting. Maybe you rejoice in the ability to order a pizza online instead of having to call and talk to someone over the phone.

Good news, you’re normal.

We all have some familiarity with feeling anxious in social settings. For some, social anxiety becomes severe and causes significant distress. When this happens, it’s important to begin developing an understanding of how social anxiety is affecting your life and what steps you can take to overcome these challenges.

More good news, social anxiety is treatable!

What is Social Anxiety?

Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is more than just shyness or the normal feelings of anxiety one might feel before a social event. SAD involves an intense level of worry or fear associated with social settings. These experiences are intense enough to cause distress most days and negatively impact a person’s ability to engage life the way they would like. Social anxiety uses a mix of thoughts and behaviors as a means for increasing its control in our life and decreasing our own sense of control.

For example social anxiety often includes thoughts such as

  • “I’m going to say something awkward.”
  • “They’re going to notice how anxious I look.”
  • “I’m not going to have anything to talk about.”
  • “I’m probably going to do something embarrassing.”
  • “They’re going to think I’m weird.”

These thoughts leads to behaviors such as:

  • Cancelling plans to avoid the anxiety
  • Rumination on potential things that could go wrong
  • Rumination on past conversations or perceived awkwardness
  • Over-rehearsing plans for handling social situations
  • Avoiding phone calls
  • Looking for ways to avoid conflict
  • Ignoring desires to ask for things/wishes

While these behaviors are useful in decreasing the anxiety they are often in conflict with the behaviors we would rather be engaged in. The discrepancy between anxious behaviors and ideal behavior only serves to feed frustration with ourselves.

Shifting Our Thoughts about Anxiety

Looking at these thoughts and behaviors objectively, we can often see that social anxiety leads us to underestimate our own social abilities and to overestimate both the judgment of others and the consequences of our perceived social ineptitude. The truth is that most other people are far too concerned with their anxieties to consider yours.

Feeling anxious in itself is not necessarily the problem though. The problem with social anxiety is found in the patterns we use to cope with it. When was the last time you noticed someone walking oddly who wasn’t intentionally doing so? When was the last time you saw someone who was obviously nervous and you decided you didn’t like that person? In fact you likely felt more connection with them than disdain.

How Social Anxiety Takes Control

A typical response to anxiety might look like this:

Event ——> Feel Anxiety —–> Do something ——-> Relief

This works well when the anxiety is the result of an actual threat and something that should be avoided. It also works well when the “do something” is healthy and productive. It becomes a problem when the “do something” becomes “avoid something” or the symptoms have an undesired consequence in your life.

While anxiety is a useful emotion for protecting, focusing, and motivating, it can also grow outside its protective role and become counterproductive.

When it becomes too big, anxiety loses its normal function while becoming an overwhelming feeling that we feel must be avoided. Eventually we stop appreciating anxiety as a helper and begin to view it as an attacker. Being attacked by anxiety can be intense and our natural response is to find ways to either avoid the attack or retreat to safety as quickly as possible.

This is where the problem occurs. That is anxieties battle strategy, its dance, its script. Anxiety become the stressor and we become the responder. As long as we play by these rules, anxiety will have the upper hand. After all, it created this game.

Changing the Game

Anxiety constantly invites us to battles but only if we’re willing to play by its rules. It attacks where we are most sensitive. It knows our buttons and lives to light up each one. It steps into our emotional elevator and mashes every button in sight forcing us to stop at each floor of our insecurities.

For the social anxious person, these buttons might be going to a job interview, going to school, meeting new people, going out with friends, talking to a boss or co-workers, giving talks to crowds, or even going out in public at all.

Social anxiety convinces us that we cannot handle a social event and we must avoid it. We then avoid the event and begin to reflect on how poorly we are at socializing. These thoughts then perpetuate the cycle of anxiety ad-nauseum.

At some point, the cycle has to be broken. We must stop playing the game by anxiety’s rules. Instead of you responding to your anxiety, what would happen if you forced anxiety to respond to you? What if you changed the script? What if this became an improv play rather than a tired rehearsal?

What Can I Do About It?

There are many many ways to begin changing the script of your relationship with anxiety. In my next few blog posts, I’m going to be talking about ways to become more flexible and open to approaching your anxiety and shifting the patterns related to it. I will talk about ways to take the battle to anxiety instead of being attacked. I will speak about making your anxiety humorous, illogical, and separate from yourself.

Learning to manage your anxiety is challenging in practice, but the concepts are fairly simple. They are also effective. Social anxiety and other anxiety disorders are highly receptive to therapy interventions.

In the meantime here are some practical ways your can begin shifting your relationship with anxiety:

  • Name your anxiety when it happens – “This is my anxiety”, “it wants me to do this”, “it’s telling me this”, “it’s making my body feel”.
  • Develop coping thoughts – “I have talked to people before and they seemed to like me”, “I have seen people be awkward and I did not judge them”, “I will survive feeling nervous if I go out”
  • Remind yourself it’s okay to not be perfect. You don’t have to be the center of the room. You don’t have to change the lives of each person you speak with.
  • Own your anxiety – I can’t count the times I’ve been weird in social settings. I used to feel nervous, feel a rush of hotness, leave, and then ruminate on that moment for the next month. Now I draw attention to being awkward with something like, “Wow, sorry for being so awkward, I can weird sometimes.”
  • Talk back – “Anxiety, I get it, you want me to stress out and you’re trying to look out for me, but I really don’t have time for this right now. I’ll come back to you later.”
  • Schedule time to be anxious – “Anxiety, I’ve got things to do right now but I hear you. When I’m done, I will give you 15 minutes to tell me about my fears before I move on again.”

More Resources

If you want to get started overcoming your own social anxiety, contact me to schedule an appointment. Yes, you can do it without picking up a phone. Contact Me

There many many online resources for confronting social anxiety as well:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

The Social Anxiety Institute

Anxiety Bristish Columbia