What is social anxiety? Sam is petrified of saying the wrong thing and looking stupid. When introduced to a crowd of people, Sam will shake and blush.

“I just find it so difficult to mix and chat with people. If I’m at a social gathering, I cannot hold a drink without shaking. I’m always afraid I will say something stupid and look like a fool.”

Last year Sam dropped a glass of wine at a party. She got some really bad looks from people and since then has turned down quite a few invitations. Sam’s fear of ‘looking like a fool’ just seems to be getting worse.

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Sam is experiencing social anxiety, an irrational fear of social situations. Also referred to as a social phobia. sufferers fears can be wide ranging and far more intense than everyday shyness. Typically, sufferers assume they will be criticized and evaluated negatively.

They may view public situations such as attending parties or giving speeches as extremely uncomfortable  and distressing, they live with a constant fear of being judged, observed, remarked upon and rejected. People with social anxiety can also experience an irrational fear of doing something stupid or embarrassing.

They perceive other people as  being more critical and judgmental than they really are. Some with social anxiety also misuse drugs and alcohol to try and reduce the anxiety. Social Anxiety can cause a person to feel anxious about and even avoid common activities.

Activities that can cause social anxiety

Social anxiety can be quite isolating, with suffers feeling like they’re the only ones with the problem. In reality, social anxiety is quite common and there are many people struggling to live with these fears.

-Meeting people for the first time

-Talking in groups or initiating  conversations

-Speaking on the telephone

-Talking to people perceived to be authority figures

-Working

-Eating in company

-and even shopping

Social anxiety and panic attacks

The fear of a social situation can sometimes lead to a panic attack, an intense physical and mental feeling of apprehension or impending disaster which can include physical feelings such as:

-Heart palpitations

-Chest pains

-Breathlessness

-Intense feelings of fear

-Lightheadedness and dizziness

 Fortunately these symptoms tend to only last a few minutes.

 

Three steps for managing social anxiety

1) Challenge your negative thinking.

Distorted thoughts have a way of making our lives miserable. This is especially true for social anxiety sufferers. The errors in our thinking are known as cognitive distortions, and were first observed by the pioneering American psychiatrist Dr Aaron Beck back in the 1960s.

Cognitive distortions are patterns of thought that lead people to perceive reality in a negative form. These unhelpful and distorted thinking patterns convince people that their interpretation of events are accurate and true, when in reality they are not.

Indeed, cognitive distortions generate inaccurate, exaggerated and generally self-defeating thought patterns that interfere with how a person interprets an event, usually leading to upsetting and destructive emotions. In other words, our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true or hasn’t happened with thoughts.

Cognitive distortions we tell ourselves

-‘If i go to that party I just know I wont have anything interesting to say ‘

-‘People will think I’m boring’

-‘I can’t possibly give a speech. My voice will shake and I will dry up.’

-‘People will think I’m boring’

-‘She  will notice I’m anxious’

Common cognitive distortions associated with social anxiety

-Mind reading

-Assuming people will think badly of you without evidence to support your assumptions

Fortune telling

Socially anxious  people  tend to spend a lot of time thinking  and worrying about the future and thinking that whatever could go wrong will go wrong rather than allowing things to take their course.

-‘If I go to that party I just know i wont have anything interesting to say ‘

-‘If I try and introduce myself, I’ll end up looking like a fool’

 However most of the things we worry about don’t usually happen, so it is far more realistic to be positive.

Personalizing

Socially anxious people  often take things far too personally. For example if a friend is quiet in your company, you assume that you must have done something to offend them.

Perhaps you see someone you know on the other side of the street and wave. They walk on by and so you assume they are ignoring you when in fact they just might not have seen you.

-“I must have done something wrong to upset them”

Catastrophizing

Catastrophizing involves magnifying problems by blowing their effects way out of proportion to the situation.When things go wrong, anxious people  have a tendency to exaggerate the consequences and imagine a disastrous outcome.

-“This is the worst thing that could happen. It’s awful and I can’t cope!”

-“My presentation was  awful ,really terrible….I will never ever recover”

-Look for the distortions in your thinking

-Challenge your negative thoughts by asking such questions as

-Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?

-Am I mind-reading, assuming  what others might be thinking?

-Am I believing I can predict the future?

-Am I catastrophizing and getting things out of proportion?

-What would my best  friend say to me  if they knew I was thinking this ?

-Am I overestimating the danger?

By changing the way that you think by challenging unrealistic thoughts and substituting them for more accurate helpful thoughts you will start to change the way that you feel for the better.

It takes work and practice to catch yourself using these cognitive distortions and it takes practice to change your thinking but the effort is worth it. Try it yourself and see how your outlook on life changes by changing your thinking.

2) BREATHE!

Many changes happen in your body when you become anxious. One of the first changes is that you begin to breathe quickly. For instance if you are anxious, you may tend to hold your breath and speak in a high–pitched voice as you exhale.

managing social anxiety_2

The key to deep breathing is to learn how to breathe deeply from the abdomen. Here are two techniques that can teach you to do just that. The benefits of ‘belly breathing’ include:

-Reduced stress and anger

-Improved relaxation

-Helps overcome fears

 Technique 1

A. While standing, place both hands on your lower stomach.

B. Begin to inhale while imagining that your stomach is being blown up like a balloon*. As you inhale your hands should move outwards as you breathe in slowly to a silent count of 4.

As you exhale you should draw your stomach in and your hands should move inwards while you exhale to a silent count of  5 to 6.

-This will allow the diaphragm to and enable air to flow all the way to the bottom of the lungs

 Technique 2

A Lie on your back on a flat but comfortable surface.

B Place your right hand on your stomach and your left hand on your chest.

C As you inhale your right hand should rise while your left hand remains relatively motionless as you breath in to a silent count of 4.

D As you exhale your right hand should fall as breathe out to a silent count of 5 to 6.

Try to practice at least once or twice a day at a time when you can relax, relatively free from distraction. This will help to develop a more relaxed breathing habit. The key to progress is to practice, so try to set aside some time each day.

Once you have learned and practiced these deep-breathing techniques you do them while standing, sitting or lying down.

3) Do not avoid your fears – Face them one step at a time

Do not avoid situations in which you experience anxiety. Instead, gradually expose yourself to the feared situation. That way you will unlearn your old ways of thinking that feed the negative feelings.

Anxiety will then reduce until it leaves you completely. However, this needs to be undertaken with some care and in gradual steps. It is important to take small steps

Don’t try to move too fast or tackle a big fear right away. Forcing  things can be counter productive and reinforce your anxiety. Better to take little steps one step at a time. Patience really will be rewarded.

Overcoming your social fears and anxiety  takes time work  and practice. A gradual process  in which you utilize the skills you’ve learned to stay calm, challenge your negative thoughts and  focus on your breathing .

There are  other self help techniques for  social anxiety. For some self help will not be enough. Professional therapy’s such as  clinical hypnotherapy and cognitive-behavioural therapy can be particularly effective.

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