The 3 Stages of Overcoming Social Anxiety

By Aaron Morton

Picture of cartoon characters with scary expressions looking at one infront of them with a bag on its head

Imagine for a moment you are going about your day, maybe a bit of day dreaming, doing a bit of work. All feeling like a pretty average day, I suspect. Suddenly you discover that you are out of food so need to go to the supermarket.

To most people this would simply mean taking a trip to the supermarket. For people with social anxiety, this can be the start of an onslaught of catastrophe thinking and feelings that would make sticking pins in their eyes more appealing than a trip to the local supermarket.

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Social Anxiety is a big deal and a roadblock for anyone looking to increase their confidence, which is why I will discuss it today and provide insights into how to manage the effects and even overcome social Anxiety.

What is Social Anxiety

Social Anxiety can be described as an intense response to situations that involve being around other people. A component of social anxiety is the perception that you are being judged by other people around you and ridiculed in anything you do.

The effect of this is blushing, sweaty palms and a change in the rate of breathing, which is exacerbated by the continual feeling other people are watching you.

From Social Anxiety to Festival Goer

An example of this was a woman that came to see me because she was terrified of being in large built up public places. She had never ventured into the local shopping mall and when she was in public places she would get a nauseating feeling in the pit of her stomach and her panicking thoughts would begin to spiral out of control.

This would extend into her ability to drive as she was scared she’d get lost in case she found herself in a large public area.

Luckily Social Anxiety can be overcome and after working with me, my client was able to attend a big festival (if you’ve never experienced a festival think lots of people, little space) without panicking and actually was able to have FUN, which is normally the last thing that socially anxious people experience.

We are Social Creatures

One piece of my confidence model is social intelligence. We are social creatures. A reason we were able to evolve aside from opposable thumbs and developing our ability to stand upright is that we taught each other skills and we told each other stories that then got passed onto other people.

‘Strength in numbers’ is not just a cliché, it is truth we work better as part of a tribe.

Being socially anxious is a threat to us being in a tribe because it diminishes our options. Our most fluid is when we are part of a tribe (family, group of friends etc) and we feel comfortable being part of other tribes (joining a club for example). Social anxiety creates a fear around the contexts where new tribes can be built (social events, clubs, areas where there are a lot of people).

Avoidance is not the answer

Social isolation.

The most common solution for people with social anxiety is to avoid most places that would trigger an anxiety attack. Whilst prompting fewer chances of having an anxiety attack, the problem with this method is two fold;

  1. It never creates an opportunity to provide new mental markers, so prolonging the state of anxiety
  2. The taboo around what triggers the anxiety remains and even solidifies further.

How Social Anxiety is created

In a recent article I detailed how anxiety is created and the effect it can have on your confidence. To summarise, we take in information from our environment via our senses. One of the first areas in the brain this information feeds through is the Amygdala (almond shaped, commonly thought of as the ‘fear centre’).

If the information is determined to not be of importance, it gets discarded. If the information is seen as being important one of two things will happen next:

  1. An immediate response is initiated without the need for conscious awareness or if an immediate response is not required
  2. Other parts of the brain will generate from memory experiences that are similar to what you are currently faced with in order to generate a response.

Once a patterned response has been generated, the final piece is the narrative that you are aware of in the form of thought and internal dialogue. Social anxiety comes into play in the following form:

Environment is social situations (stimuli comes in) → Amgdala triggers the stimuli as something of importance → A pattern is found from memory as a cue of how to respond (memory finds a similar situation from last year) → Generates an emotion (fear) → Feeling is activated (butterflys in stomach, sweaty palms, breathing quicker) → Narrative is created (“I need to get out”)

How to handle social anxiety

The first consideration to realise is social anxiety is not a fixed state and it is possible to change your response to social situations.

In the interest of ease, I’ve broken the context into 3 sections; Before (what you can do before you are in a social situation), During (how to cope with possible physiological responses whilst in a social situation) and after (how to make use of the experience you have just had in a social situation).

Before

As a result of the evolution of the brain we can experience the physiological effects of a situation without actually being in that situation for real. We can feel tense about social situations whilst lying alone in bed with the curtains closed!

As a result in order to counter this it is important to use that active imagination for better means. Here are two methods you can try:

Please do play with my feelings!

Worried girl on a swing,

How a person feels is a large part that makes up ‘their’ anxiety. So what better use of time than to practice playing with your feelings. Credit here goes to Gary Turner & his book ‘no worries’.

Give it a go:

  1. Access an experience that causes you to be anxious.
  2. Focus on the feelings in your body. You’ll find this easier by closing your eyes.
  3. Give the intensity of that feeling a number on scale 1-10 where 10 is maximum.
  4. Lets start playing! If that feeling had a colour what colour would you choose?
  5. Change the colour to something you associate as a soothing, relaxing colour. Notice the gradual transition to the new colour.
  6. Feelings rarely stay dormant, they tend to be moving. Notice in what direction your feelings are moving in your body. Play with speeding that feeling ssslllooowweerr & sslllooowwweerr.
  7. Now if that feeling was a shape what shape would it be? Focus on that shape & begin to shrink it smaller until it becomes a distant dot.
  8. Now focus on that dot and notice it coming back into focus but its no longer that previous shape but a new, more exciting and happy shape in the colour you previously associated with soothing & relaxed tones. What shape is that?
  9. Now open your eyes and how what number you’d give yourself on the scale now.

Ball Passing

A good way to overcome anxiety is to see it as a game and the first part of that game is recognising that the intensity of your anxiety is subjective rather than permanent. The ball passing game is a great exercise I found from therapist Andrew Austin. Its function is to distract the mind by giving it something to think about and reducing internal dialogue.

Here is how it goes:

  1. Access your anxiety and notice how that feels in your body. Spend some time, accessing all the components that make up your anxiety, what you see, what you feel, what your hear.
  2. If you were to rate it on an anxiety scale where 10 is the maximum what number on the scale would you choose.
  3. Now take a ball in one hand and with your head facing forward look up with your eyes (its important your head faces forward as you do this)
  4. As your eyes look up & your head faces forward, take the ball and throw it from hand to hand. Make most of the movement come from the throwing hand & little from the receiving hand.
  5. Continue to do this for 30 seconds. Once complete, stop and rate yourself on the anxiety scale again.
  6. Repeat until you can get to around 2-3 on the scale.
Picture of Aaron demostrating the ballpass

Ball Passing

 

 

These two exercises are practice. As with any practice they are not one time wonders but designed to be repeated in order to increase their effectiveness. The more you practice the stronger the effect.

During

Being in the eye of the storm can be the most dangerous setting to be in. The place the socially anxious hate the most is within social contexts surrounded by a lot of people. However to overcome social anxiety the act of being around people has to occur at some point.

Psychiatrists call it ‘exposure therapy’, others call it ‘just getting on with it’. With that said there are a number of tactics you can employ in order to make sure you don’t reach for the nearest exit within seconds.

Breathing

The ‘low hanging fruit’ of the personal development world, managing your breathing is mission critical in creating a calmer internal state. When we become anxious we go into our head and fail to realise we are holding our breath and performing shorter breaths in anticipation that its going to kick off.

It is important just before you enter into a social context you intentionally set a rhythm for your breathing. I say before for good reason.

It will be harder to remember to focus on your breathing when you’re submerged in the very stimuli that you are anxious about. Breathing puts you in a state that makes anxiety harder to be present.

The breathing rhythm I teach my clients is very simple for a simple reason; you don’t want to use too much energy thinking about how to do the exercise designed to calm you down! The rhythm is inhaling through the nose for 4 seconds, holding for 1 seconds, then exhaling for 4 seconds, repeat.

This works firstly because oxygen is flowing through your body and because it resembles more the breathing pattern of someone in a relaxed state, which is what you’re aiming for!

Sensory based attention

Anxiety can accelerated due to two factors:

  1. It seduces you into the war thats going on in your head of destructive self-talk. “I can’t do this”, “I’m going to faint, I need to get out of here”.
  2. It makes you come up with loads of crazy assumptions about the people around you. “They are all looking at me” “They think I look stupid, they’re laughing at me”

Truth is, we make a lot of stuff up in the height of emotion. To counteract this, its time to go sensory specific simply by asking the question “what am I noticing”?

The one condition in this exercise is what you say is only valid if it could be confirmed by a video camera. As an example, imagine you see a guy sat down in front of you. Saying:

“The man is sat down with his hands over his face” – is valid because ‘man’, ‘sat down’ & ‘hands over face’ can all be validated by a video camera.

‘The man is upset’ – is not valid because that is an assumption you have come up with yourself. It can’t be validated by the video camera.

The purpose of this exercise is to reduce assumption based thinking during a potential highly emotional context. It also gets your focus out of your head and into what you are noticing around you.

To practice get a timer out on your phone and practice in 5 minute blocks to focus on what you can notice around you.

After

Great you’ve survived! You’ve got through a social encounter without thinking you’re going to die, vomit or get laughed at by everyone there. But the main objective is to ensure you can consistently go into social contexts without losing half your body weight through sweat.

This requires you to think differently about the situations you’ve been in and the situations you are going to be in in the future. There are two ways you can begin this process:

Highlight your mini wins

Figures hugging for friendship.

People who aren’t anxious about social situations are that way because they haven’t created neurological markers on past memories to signal that it is a context to avoid. Whenever they are in a social situation, if nothing is highlighted as traumatic, your brain will give it the ok to be repeated again in the future.

In a social situation the brain of the socially anxious creates another ‘fuck that’ marker to engrain the notion these contexts are to be avoided.

This means that no matter how small the act within a social context you have to note it and give yourself a psychological pat on the back in order to create new markers that signify its actually ok to feel calm & relaxed within social situations.

It doesn’t matter if your only ‘mini win’ is that you smiled at another person, note it. As more and more of these mini wins build up you will find your capacity to be calm in social situations increasing. Start to become aware of all the good things you do, you’ll be surprised how many you come up with.

Schedule Your next social exposure

The default behaviour for the social anxious is avoidance. This has to be counteracted by actively deciding when you are going to next be in a social situation.

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Once you have done this, begin to visualise yourself in this situation with the added resources you’ve gained from noticing your mini wins. Visualise how successful you will be in that social situation and notice how calm you feel as you engage in the social situation.

It is important you do this regularly in order for you to see this way of acting within the social context ‘normal’.

To conclude, social anxiety is not fun and the effects can paralyse an individual and diminish any kind of confidence they possess.

My clients have had great results from using these simple techniques but the ultimate goal is creating a worldview where social anxiety just wouldn’t fit. It would be as foreign as a stripper in the vatican.

How Do You Deal With Anxiety?

About the Author

Aaron Morton is about human performance. As a coach and personal trainer, Aaron works with entrepreneurs to create the environment, mentally, physically & strategically, where they can perform at their best.

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