More Than Just Shy: About Social Anxiety

More Than Just Shy: About Social Anxiety

More Than Just Shy: About Social Anxiety

What is Social Anxiety?

At one time or another, all of us, even the most social bons vivants out there, have been struck by feelings of awkwardness, felt at a loss of what to say in conversation, or experienced the urge to leave a social situation. You may have felt tongue tied, anxious, or shy for a variety of reasons.

Perhaps, however, you experience significant anxiety and distress when having a one-on-one conversation, presenting as a speaker, or even being observed while eating. You may notice upsetting thoughts about whether or not others are scrutinizing or judging you negatively. It doesn't really matter whether or not people are actually judging you, it is impossible not to think that they are. And, the worst part of having social anxiety is that you avoid social situations that you know would be good for you. You skip parties, work events, public speaking opportunities or other engagements because the fear and overwhelming thoughts will be just too much.

Introversion vs. Social Anxiety

It's important to differentiate between having social anxiety and being introverted. While they may have similar features, introversion is actually a personality style or temperament. Think of it as a way of being in the world that is consistent over time. If you are introverted, you probably have been since childhood and it doesn't necessarily get in the way of you going to parties, talking to people or speaking in public, but it does influence your style of interaction. You may have a style of speech that is more reserved, you may notice that being in social situations uses up your energy rather than recharges your batteries, or you may really relish alone time as an important aspect of your self-care. Social situations may not always be comfortable or your favorite thing, but you don't necessarily dread them either.

How do you deal with social anxiety?

First, consider what matters to you by getting clear on your values. Often, social anxiety is most problematic because of the things you might avoid or miss out on in order to not have the social anxiety. What is important in your life and how could you live your life more fully if you didn't have the social anxiety? It could be that you want to be able to speak up at work meetings to advance your career, go out on a date with someone, or just dance in public. Explore what is missing from your life and keeps you feeling like you are stuck. 

Skill Building and Preparation

Mastering social skills and preparing yourself for social situations is also very important. There are a variety of ways to do this. If you find conversations difficult, identifying several conversation topics in advance that you feel comfortable talking about can help boost your confidence. Don't just identify the topics, however, create some bullet points of things you would like to say. Then, prepare by finding a trusted friend or family member and practice conversing. Experience what it is like to have lulls in conversation, engage in dialog and ask questions of others - these are all skills that you can develop and practice. There are also social skills groups out there for developing and practicing these skills. Working with a therapist can help here too!

For some types of social anxiety, getting one-on-one training or taking a class can be helpful in building confidence. If you have social anxiety around going to the gym, engaging a trainer in a private setting can be a good place to start. Toastmasters is a great organization for building public speaking skills. Taking a dance, improv or etiquette class can help build skills and boost confidence in areas where you experience anxiety and fear judgment of others.

Change Your Relationship to Your Internal Experience

Even after you've built some skills or practiced with friends, you will still have to relate to the anxious thoughts and feelings that might come up, as well as the urge to avoid social situations.

Accept your internal experience.

Identifying ways to sooth yourself and relax in social situations is often very important. Breathing is your best friend here. Try practicing relaxation breathing in anticipation of and during social events. Mindfulness around what is going on inside can also be helpful. Understanding that you can experience anxiety and still engage in a social situation can be useful. Getting in touch with your body in the moment you are feeling overwhelmed by social anxiety may keep you engaged longer.

Relate to your thoughts differently.

Often social anxiety includes challenging thoughts: "I can't believe I said that - they must think I'm an idiot!" "This conversation is awful! I don't know what to say!" "Everyone is watching me!" Learning to have thoughts and not buy into them (especially since they aren't likely true) is an important skill to cultivate. Keeping track of the thoughts that occur when you are anxious in social situations can allow you to start noticing them for what they really are - just thoughts.

Urge surfing can help as well.

In a previous post I wrote about urge surfing. I think it can be a useful tool here. Many times social anxiety leads to avoidance. When anxiety spikes, you may notice the urge to exit a situation, not enter a new situation, or stay quiet in a conversation. Learning to have an urge and not give into it can be very useful. Urge surfing is a practice of noticing and having the urge and maintaining curiosity around it, rather than give into it.

Finally, sometimes more support is necessary to move forward and have a richer and fuller life when social anxiety shows up. Working with a therapist can be a good way to build skills and relate to anxiety differently, especially for identifying approaches to relating to anxious thoughts in a flexible way that allows you to do what matters to you. 

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