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Understanding and Managing Social Anxiety

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety, or social phobia as it’s sometimes known, is one of the most prominent anxieties in society. It’s also the one form of anxiety we can all relate to because of its link to our evolution as human beings.

Millions of years ago, when we were hunter/gatherers, we lived in smaller tribes or communities. For the community to survive, all members needed to be strong, so weaker, more vulnerable people may have been pushed out to fend for themselves. This is why we have an intrinsic need to be accepted and liked within society. Being perceived in a certain way was once beneficial for our survival.

This psychology remains very present today. We all want to be seen as strong, successful and confident. We strive for acceptance and have a real need to be liked by others because a few million years ago our survival depended on it.

Social Anxiety is Anxiety in Social Situations Due to Fear of…

Poor performance

Failure

Appearing anxious

Negative evaluation from others

Judgement

Attracting negative attention

People struggling with social anxiety may have had a significantly humiliating social experience in the past. They may have been bullied or have low self-esteem, leading to distorted beliefs around how they’re perceived by others.

Is It Treatable?

While we all know what social anxiety feels like to a degree, some people experience debilitating anxiety in social situations which stops them doing the things they want to. Thankfully, social anxiety is very treatable. CBT can help you explore how your thoughts, feelings and behaviours are maintaining your social anxiety. With this insight, you’ll learn to reverse these unhelpful patterns.

How to Manage Social Anxiety

  1. Focus Your Attention Outwards

When we’re anxious, our attention goes to the threat. When we experience social anxiety, we are the threat, so our attention is directed inwards. We become very preoccupied with our thoughts, our performance in the situation, how others are viewing us, and how anxiety feels in our body. The key is to keep your attention outwards. People are very flattered when we give them our attention and less attention on ourselves reduces our anxiety.

  1. Be Authentic

Our individuality is our superpower. When we’re being ourselves, we’re not perfect. We don’t always get it right, but people will be more engaged with you. When we put on a social mask and try to be something different it’s exhausting and stilted. It doesn’t come across as genuine and people are unlikely to engage with you as much.

  1. Don’t Plan Too Much

Social situations rarely go to plan. Humans are unpredictable and there are simply too many variables. Planning will create more anxiety than it resolves, so keep it to a minimum.  Plan 3 things you can talk about or ask someone and that’s it. Stay in the flow of conversation as it happens, rolling with the uncertainty.

  1. No Dissecting Afterwards

When we reflect on a social situation, anxiety can distort our thinking. Our memory is not a good measure of our performance. We’ll have a heightened sense of things that went wrong and only focus on the negatives. Try noticing what went well instead. This can be hard as we’re naturally critical of ourselves, but it gets easier with practice

  1. Avoid Avoidance

Don’t avoid social situations. If there’s something you struggle with, do it more often and you should notice a reduction in anxiety over time. Too many coping strategies or safety behaviours can make anxiety worse. Instead, we need to ride the wave of anxiety and allow it to happen, leaning into the experience. It isn’t easy but will provide the best results.

You Are Not Alone

When you visit the supermarket, a third of people will be struggling with very high anxiety. And yet, how many times have you seen someone looking obviously anxious in the supermarket? People are unlikely to spot your social anxiety and if they do, they’ll have a compassionate response.

We all know how it feels to want to be included and liked. This sense of common humanity can really help settle anxiety when it strikes. It’s a very scary world if you imagine you’re the only person who’s struggling, so try to remember we’re all in it together.

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Sarah Rees

Sarah is a fully accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and mental health writer delivering Modern Mental Health for you and with you in Mind. Sarah is the author of ‘The CBT Journal’ which helps you write for your wellbeing incorporating CBT techniques. For more information and to keep in touch have a look at sarahdrees.co.uk.