At home and on social media, you’re an extroverted badass. In public, you become an isolationist dodging eye contact and handshakes, with a tendency towards agoraphobia and a general excitement over cancelled plans. Your favorite party trick is not going.
What is Social Anxiety?
The most common of all the anxiety disorders, social anxiety is an extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations. A little social anxiety is normal for everyone. However, when social anxiety becomes abnormal, it’s a self-serving, narcissist hell-bent on your full attention – like Kim Jong-un or Miley Cyrus.
Social anxiety disorder is an enigma in that it comprises a general distaste for peopling, with an opposing internal need for … people. But on your terms, and in limited doses. Social anxiety can save you money on all the fun things you would otherwise go out and do. The downside includes a sadistic focus on all things that can go wrong; nervously blurting everything you never wanted to say aloud just to fill conversational lulls; and performing extensive post-interaction analyses to scrutinize your perceived collective flaws.
How Does One Get Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is contagious. Sort of. Researchers are learning that anxiety disorders run in families, and that they have a biological basis, much like allergies, diabetes, and bad taste. Anxiety disorders typically develop from a complex set of risk factors that include genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life experiences.
Neurosis Loves Company: The Social Anxiety Numbers
Anxiety is the most common mental illness for adults, and the number one mental health issue in North America (source: NIMH). Of all the anxiety disorders, social anxiety is the most common, with 15 million American adults suffering a social anxiety disorder, or 13 out of 100 people. The malady is equally common among men and women, and typically begins around age 13. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about 1/3 of those suffering receive treatment.
All of this supports a rationale for keeping a blank social calendar from an underground doomsday bunker. However, you can get out there and thrive. Here are 10 ways how:
- THROW A COUNTERPUNCH. Do not give in to what the anxiety is driving you to do. Instead, acknowledge it and say, “Hey, inner angst, I’m the shot caller and I came to party!” Whatever it is that counters the anxiety, do it. Each time you parry your fear, you are “rewiring” your brain and weakening anxiety’s hold on you. No one overcomes social anxiety who consistently avoids. Author and clinical professor of psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School, Robert Leahy, Ph.D. stresses that, left untreated, social anxiety is associated with an increased risk foralcohol abuse, depression, loneliness, decreased occupational advancement and the increased likelihood of remaining single. Drunk, idle, sad, and alone is no way to live. Feel and face your anxiety – sober. You can actually do things while anxious and realize nothing bad happens.
- EXPOSE YOURSELF. Many studies demonstrate the efficacy of exposure-based therapies for anxiety disorders, as summarized in several published meta-analyses according to Johanna S. Kaplan, PhDand David F. Tolin, PhD in Psychiatric Times. (“Exposure Therapy for Anxiety Disorders,” September 2011). We avoid what frightens us and, in return, are frightened by what we avoid. Expose rather than avoid by creating an exposure hierarchy. Write down scenarios that cause you anxiety in order of severity. Perform the easiest behavior first, and move down the list. Your hierarchy might start with asking a stranger for directions, and end with asking your boss for a raise. It doesn’t matter if s/he laughs you out the door. It matters that you actually asked. Social anxiety wants you timid and poor.
- BECOME AN ASKHOLE. According to Mark Tyrell, therapist and co-founder of Uncommon Knowledge, asking questions makes for great social lubricant when you otherwise have nothing to say in a social setting. Ask open-ended questions such as, “How do you know the host?” Alternatively, try soliciting advice asking something like, “Does anyone have any good movie/book/sushi recommendations?” Ask follow-up questions that take the conversation deeper. Asking where the restroom or vodka is located, or when the party ends doesn’t count.
- GIVE YOURSELF LICENSE TO CHILL. The more you worry and let anxiety rule your days, the more you wire your brain to continue worrying and being anxious, while continually linking anxiety to specific events. Instead, consider yoga, tai chi, or visualization to prepare yourself. In Psychology Today, Eric R. Maisel Ph.D. emphasizes a visualization technique to lessen anxiety. Create a mental picture of relaxing. It could be at a beach sunset, watching a forest gently sway to a breeze, leaves falling silently in your backyard, etc. When you visualize, engage your other senses as well. What does the place smell and feel like? What do you hear? Do it every day for long enough that it becomes as natural as staring at your smartphone.
- PLUG YOUR NOSE. Try alternate nostril breathing. This is a simple, natural breathing technique for managing stress and anxiety. Close one nostril by placing your thumb gently over it. Breathe out then in through the uncovered nostril. After each breath cycle, switch sides. A breath cycle is one out-breath and one in-breath. Leading with your out-breath, do one out-breath followed by one in-breath through each nostril. Repeat this series, alternating nostrils after each inhalation. According to Ayurvedic medicine, alternate nostril breathing brings the body and mind into a state of balance and neutrality, and has been used by elite athletes for decades. It will likely be easier to breathe through one nostril than the other. You’re not deformed – it’s normal.
- PUMP-UP YOUR JAM. According to Dr. Lisa Legault of Clarkson University, “Practitioners who are interested in using self-affirmation as an intervention tactic in academic and social programming might be interested to know that the strategy produces measurable neurophysiological effects.” Pick a mantra, slogan, or verse to incite yourself prior to an event or performance.Psalm 55:22 is an example calming scripture: “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.” Alternatively, to get motivated to conquer, consider AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock.” Find your own song or chant that calms or inspires confidence as you head to a gathering or performance. Remember, anticipation of a worrisome social situation is usually worse than the actual event. Unless it’s going to prison.
- SILENCE “BOO.” Boo is the cruel cynic in your head relentlessly booing you, filling you with worry and doubt. Like a mother in law, but invisible. Dispute Boo’s negative rants with truths such as, (1) you are more than capable of nailing the upcoming marathon/wedding toast/hostage negotiation; (2) there are at least as many reasons things will go right for you; and (3) you are competent, skilled, and deserve to be happy! Ben Martin, Psy.D. presents four main types of challenging questions to negative thinking: (1) What evidence do you have for this thinking? (2) Are there any other ways you could look at this situation? (3) Is this situation as bad as you’re making it out to be? And, (4) What can you do to help yourself solve the problem or to feel better?
- STOP GIVING A #%@! what others think. Social anxiety is tied to feelings of being judged. The judgements and opinions of others have no reflection on your worth or talents. Social anxiety treatment includes learning to be flawed, while detaching approval from external sources. Being a perfectionist is fine in rocket science, but not when bringing Chex™ Mix to Bunco night. According to an American Psychological Association study, we consistently overestimate how much, and how badly, others think of us, causing us to be more inhibited and less impulsive and happy than we could be (“Do others judge us as harshly as we think? Overestimating the impact of our failures, shortcomings, and mishaps.” Savitsky, Kenneth; Epley, Nicholas; Gilovich, Thomas / Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 81(1), Jul 2001, 44-56).
- PRESS LEVER FOR SNACK. Rather than berating yourself in post interaction analysis, practice self-reward. Not with rounds of tequila or tattoos. But commend yourself for attending the event, for being present, and for facing down your anxiety. Each time you counter your anxiety, you whittle away its power over you, while gaining confidence to step in the ring again. You are taking your life back one endeavor at a time. A tenet of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is the importance of rewarding yourself for exposing yourself to your fears. You deserve the adulation, and you will be more motivated to do it again if there are some self-high-fives or frozen yogurts on the back end.
- PHONE A FREUD. See your doctor or a mental health provider if anxiety disrupts your life or daily activities. You may need treatment to get better. Like a receding hairline, social anxiety happens gradually and initially without much notice. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for social anxiety. Self-medicating is not.
Anxiety hates to dance. So get out there and dance.