Social anxiety is quite common but it affects people in different ways, situations and circumstances. Some people may find they have anticipatory anxiety before certain events, like interview days, big events like weddings and public speaking. But for those that suffer with everyday social anxiety this can be equally debilitating.
Living with social anxiety can be tough because it literally affects everything we do. From the choices we make, activities we participate in, opportunities that are presented to us and naturally, the way we live our lives. It can also have a huge impact on the direction of our life and how it unfolds.
For many people living with social anxiety, it can range from mild to very extreme. It’s often triggered due to particular circumstances. Big events such as:–
- Going on a date
- Meeting new friends
- New job interview.
It can also be triggered by everyday events. For example:-
- Going to the supermarkets or the shops
- Speaking with the cash register assistant
- Asking for directions
- Walking around in public places.
In order to address the many challenges of social anxiety, we need to understand the specific causes.
Social anxiety manifests itself as tension in the body, elevated heart rate, paranoia, awkwardness, inhibition, not being able to express ourselves in certain moments where we want/need to. This is often caused by the beliefs and the ideas that we hold in our mind. When these are triggered, or we are provoked/threatened by the particular circumstance, this is when the anxiety kicks in.
In our everyday existence, we have two types of thinking.
One type of thinking is known as logistical thinking. This is simply our organisational logical thinking such as, today, I need to get the train. Or we may have thought when we go to the shop, I’m going to buy apples today, they are on the list, together with potatoes and rice. It’s very logistical. This kind of thinking holds no real emotion and is more matter of fact.
However, most people living with social anxiety describe themselves as self-conscious and this is an accurate description of the second kind of thinking, known as self-referential thinking.
Self-referential thinking is where we are referring back to ourselves.
For example… we might have the logistical thought, OK, I need to get the train. But then self-referential thinking would come in, making us consider, what happens if I miss the train? What happens if I’m late for work? What happens if the train is delayed? What will people on the train think of me? Should I be getting the train to work rather than driving?
This is where we apply personal meaning to our circumstances and to the logistical tasks of the day. We give it meaning that relates back to our self-image and identity. Within this, self-referential thinking is where a lot of anxiety is created.
Examples of self-referential thinking
Note: everyone is unique and everyone has their own thought patterns, leanings and identity. Here are some examples of self-referential thinking that can provoke anxiety in people:-
- What will people think of me?
- What if they don’t like me?
- I hope I don’t come across as being awkward.
- What if I embarrass myself?
- Are they looking at me?
- What if I make a mistake?
All of these thoughts can be considered seeds. The first domino in the sequence triggers the momentum of catastrophizing self-referential thinking. This can lead to a sense of anxiety, dread, panic or embarrassment.
Struggle with social anxiety
I actually used to really struggle with social anxiety and this would prevent me from speaking in front of groups. It would make me feel very self-conscious and on edge when I was in supermarkets, when I was around people in public places. I’d often worry about what other people were thinking of me or how I was coming across and I really used to beat myself up over this. It made me feel as though I was somehow inferior or there was something wrong with me.
In my quest to beat social anxiety, I tried a lot of things to try and overcome this. Some of the things I found most impactful were part of my own professional therapy training.
During our practice sessions with my colleagues, we would get to work through many of our fears and anxieties. That provided me with a great deal of relief and clarity.
Another thing that really helped me was the concept of self-acceptance. Because it’s often the things that we reject about ourselves that we then project onto other people. So if we don’t like the shape of our body or the way we look, we will assume that perhaps other people won’t like that either. But that is a projection of our mind onto these people.
It’s none of our business what other people think, it matters more about what we think and self-acceptance is a beautiful concept. A practice where we draw in the things that we feel such great resistance to. Then we seek to embrace it, accept it and claim ownership over it. That way we take back our power and finally give ourselves permission to exist as we are, without judgement or criticism.
After all, this is about reclaiming your sovereignty, your identity, your freedom from these thoughts, insecurities and worries. These are the things holding you back from living your best life, enjoying your life and fulfilling your potential.
Comedians have social confidence
Take comedians for example, they often talk about embarrassing moments and they talk about all the taboo topics such as farting and other awkward encounters whilst everyone in the audience cringes with laughter at the shock factor.
But whilst the audience cringes with laughter, the comedian stands there proudly and boldly, proclaiming to the world. They take ownership of their so-called insecurity or embarrassing moments and they do so with confidence. That’s because a confident person is a self-accepting person. They have claimed ownership over their embarrassing moments and taken their power back from them.
Bringing self-awareness into your thoughts
The first stage of transforming your anxiety is bringing self-awareness to your thought process. The question you need to ask yourself is: What is making me feel anxious?
Some people are afraid of judgement, criticism, embarrassment, drawing attention to themselves, being the odd one out, being rejected.
Whatever it is to you will be unique and if you spend time thinking about this, you will begin to get a clearer understanding of what’s really generating all of this anxiety. It can be helpful to use a notepad and pen for this exercise.
Social anxiety is just a symptom of an unconscious behavioural response. The good news is that it can be changed because all behaviours can be changed. This isn’t something that you’re born with. This isn’t something that you’re destined to live with for the rest of your life. It is something that can be resolved and there are many ways to do this.
Taking the right path for you
Some people feel inspired to take the route of exposure and setting themselves social challenges. This is done in the way of, OK, if I’m afraid of talking to people or more afraid of what people think, I’ll set myself a challenge. Every time I go out in a social situation, I’ll ask someone for the time or ask the shop assistant, how are you doing today?
But whilst that’s all very well for a lot of people living with social anxiety, it can be very intense and confronting, even just getting to that stage can be challenging. So for that reason, professional one to one therapy can be really helpful for this.
Some recommendations would be to first find a therapist that you trust, that you feel a genuine connection with them. Always check to see if they have a proven track record for helping people get results, and that they really are an expert in their field.
Once you find that connection, build that trust and learn to enjoy your unique character, your anxiety levels will fall as you take back control.
Social anxiety is an unconscious behavioural response that’s generated by our beliefs and thought processes, all of which can be challenged and changed..
At some point in our lives, the vast majority of humans on this earth will experience a degree of anxiety in certain social settings. How we react, adapt and behave within these settings is dictated by our attitude and perception of the experience.
This article was written by Lewis McDonnell from the Phobia Support Forum.