I was suffering with social anxiety …..
All through my childhood, teenage years and early adulthood I was described as quiet and shy – someone who much preferred their own company to that of others. In reality, I was suffering with Social Anxiety, albeit I didn’t know that at the time. I believe the source of my social anxiety was an incident that happened when I was seven years old (see below).
What lies at the heart of social anxiety?
At the heart of social anxiety lies the fear of being judged, the fear that others will make a negative evaluation of us. This fear usually leads to avoidance of the feared situations. Situations such as speaking in front of others, going to social gatherings, meeting strangers, eating in public places. This avoidance behaviour can trap people in lives of isolation as their world gets smaller and smaller.
The social situations that trigger social anxiety don’t need to be large gatherings; they can be as small as a one to one meeting with your boss, or a new client. For me, they were often a work meeting where I was expected to contribute or comment.
The impact of social anxiety on our lives
People experiencing social anxiety believe they are not good in social situations, so they worry about them in advance. They fear that they’ll do or say something foolish or embarrass themselves and that as a result others will judge them. They worry about their ability to make small talk, or even talk at all!
When people with social anxiety find themselves in a social situation, they tend to focus on themselves instead of others. They are inside their heads, thinking thoughts like: Say something, anything, just don't stuff up. Why did I just say that? Am I blushing? Can they tell how nervous I am? I’m boring them.
These thoughts just trigger more fear and intensify the anxiety we’re experiencing. The physical symptoms - the racing heart, shortness of breath, sweaty palms are fed back to our brain which interprets them as proof that we are under threat. To cope, the brain activates safety behaviours, like avoiding eye contact, retreating to a corner of the room or escaping from the situation completely.
The internal focus and avoidance behaviours make it difficult to connect with others. This reinforces the person’s belief that they are hopeless and unable to cope in social situations. This creates a vicious cycle that reinforces itself.
This self-reinforcing cycle can have serious negative impacts on a person’s personal and work life. During the years I experienced social anxiety, it definitely had a negative impact on my ability to form new friendships and relationships, and on my career progression.
Why is it that some people experience social anxiety and some don’t?
It’s partly a matter of genetics, temperament (statistically people with anxiety disorders are more likely to be introverts) and learned behaviours.
Also, for some people, a significant emotional event in the past is the source of their social anxiety. A common experience, and one which I experienced myself, is the person who when at school had a panic attack in front of their peer group.
In my case, the seven year old Tony was called to the front of the classroom to read from a book. I made a mistake, tried to correct myself, made the same mistake again. Everyone started to laugh. Standing there while my peer group sneered and laughed at me, triggered my fight or flight reflex, exacerbating the uncomfortable sensations I was already experiencing. To pour fuel on the fire the teacher also laughed. I felt exposed and vulnerable under the attention and wished that the ground would open up and swallow me. In that instant the experience was imprinted as an emotional memory on my amygdala (the area of the brain which controls our fear response). My brain wanted to be prepared so as to keep me safe should the same or a similar situation arise in future. The problem was, it kept me too safe.
How to overcome social anxiety
I recommend a two pronged approach. Learn to:
- 1. cope with the symptoms; and
- 2. reduce the occurrence of social anxiety
Very often people just focus on coping strategies. Effective coping strategies provide temporary relief but they don’t address what lies at the heart of social anxiety – the fear of being judged.
The following four steps can help you to reduce the occurrence of social anxiety in future:
- 1. Understand and acknowledge that anxiety is a normal human response and you’re not broken. You don’t need to be ‘fixed.’ You just need to develop some new skills that will help you ….
- 2. Change how you perceive social situations. To change your perception you need to change the internal filters that you use to interpret the signals you receive from your environment and yourself. A key internal filter is the belief system you have about yourself and others. You can change limiting unhelpful beliefs and install new empowering beliefs. With an updated set of filters, situations you previously perceived as threats will be perceived neutrally, or as opportunities and challenges. Which means that rather than experience anxiety, you’ll experience excitement.
- 3. With your new perception of social situations, you can begin to expose yourself to more and more challenging situations. For example, when in a social group take the pressure off yourself, and just listen to the conversation going on around you. People in social groups love listeners. Perhaps ask a couple of questions and then let the other people talk about themselves. People will think you’re a wonderful person for taking an interest in them. As you start to expose yourself to more and more situations without feeling panicked you’re confidence and self-belief will grow.
4. If the source of your social phobia was a traumatic experience like the one I experienced as a child then this can be effectively treated using the REWIND Technique.
NEW!! Anxiety Reduction Through Improvisation (ARTI) - 1 Day Workshop
Face Your Fear - Play - Listen - Support - Trust - Fail - Commit - Laugh (lots)
If you've been following my blog for a while you'll know that I've been studying and performing Improvisation for some years now. What I've discovered along the way, is that Improvisation has many philosophies and techniques that can help people take back control over anxiety, particularly social anxiety. When these Improvisation techniques are combined with anxiety busting techniques from the field of modern psychology you create a solution called “Applied Improvisation.” Applied Improvisation is popular, and is now being used across the world, to help many people experiencing anxiety, overcome their fears.
In May I'll be beta testing the Anxiety Reduction Through Improvisation (ARTI) workshop I've developed in partnership with Improvisation coach Clare Kerrison. If you want to say goodbye to your social anxiety, ARTI could be the answer you've been looking for. To learn more about this safe, fun, life changing workshop and register your interest click here.
If your anxiety is holding you back from living the life of your dreams or is causing ongoing problems in your life, give me a call me on 021 056 8389, email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the Book Now button to arrangea one hour Complementary Free Overcome Anxiety consultation .
REMEMBER - "When you change your mind you change your life."
Have a wonderful week.
Tony helps individuals to harness the power of their mind to achieve success and well-being in life, work and business. Tony's particular area of expertise lies in helping people to 'change their minds' so they overcome limiting beliefs and unhelpful habits and gain freedom from worry, anxiety and stress. Tony’s solution focused approach to coaching uses a range of techniques drawn from the fields of co-active coaching, hypnosis, positive psychology and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).