Social Anxiety Disorder is a clinical diagnosis based on a set of symptoms, the duration and intensity of the symptoms and the impact these symptoms have on your functioning. The term “social anxiety” is also often used, more generally, to describe a very normal human experience; having negatively valenced thoughts and emotions related to social interactions (having a conversation, meeting unfamiliar people, preforming, or eating in front of others). This can be before, after or during the interaction. As many people struggle with a continuum of these symptoms, I thought it would be helpful to discuss some ways to lessen the impact of these thoughts and emotions so the choice to attend social events, give a presentation, join a group, is based on values rather than avoiding emotional discomfort.
*Normalize. Social anxiety makes sense if we think back to more primitive times when separation from the group would have dire consequences. By normalizing these thoughts, we don’t let them hold us back. “That’s my caveperson mind trying to protect me.”, “Am I willing to let those thoughts and feelings play out so I can spend time with other people”. “I am not alone; a lot of people experience some level of worry about social interactions.”
*Pay attention to emotions and body sensations in the moment with curiosity and in a non-judgmental way. Finding the balance between allowing and letting go. This is the first step in being able to find a healthy balance with our emotions. Practice is helpful here. Even a few minutes a day checking in and noticing sensations and naming emotions in the body (don’t forget to be open, descriptive, and nonjudgmental).
*Pay attention to thoughts, notice where our attention is, reel it in and cast it to where we want it to go. Allowing the thoughts to be as they are and putting your attention where you want it, which is usually not on the thoughts! Knowing what our values are in the context of relationships can be helpful here; remembering what kind of friend or colleague you want to be. This allows you to control your behavior and act in ways that are true to what is important to you. For example, I might focus my behavior on being caring, present, interested, flexible and curious.
*Focus attention from inside processes (thoughts, body sensations) to things, happening in the present moment, outside of yourself. The simple act of noticing, for a few minutes, everyday what you are attending to and learning that you can control your attention. We often attempt to control body sensations, emotions, memories, and thoughts which usually proves difficult in any sustained way. In a social situation it can be a helpful skill to direct our attention to what the other person is saying or anything else we can notice in the room rather than being swept away by anxious thoughts or feelings. This is especially helpful in the beginning when we are learning to find balance with internal experiences. Awareness becomes expansive rather than narrow and there is a flexibility of attention.
*Drop avoidance/ safety behaviors. Avoidance and safety behaviors include having to do or avoid something to reduce or control anxiety in the short term. It is important to not engage in these behaviors and use the above skills listed to handle the discomfort. Safety behaviors can include: speaking very little, avoiding sharing personal information, using drugs or alcohol, not going, talking excessively to avoid silences, obsessing over appearance before socializing, avoiding eye contact, standing far from others to avoid conversation, excessive rehearsal of what to say before socializing, lying, or exaggerating to look better, speaking very softly).
*Give yourself some structure (have 3 questions prepared) especially if you are meeting with less familiar people. Don’t overdue this! It’s impossible to completely prepare for a social interaction but we can have some ideas about common interest or other things that make the conversation flow.
*Get to know yourself– pay attention to patterns or habits. Notice how past experiences may impact the stories you tell yourself. This can be especially helpful when we have experienced trauma, and we have memories triggered by a particular person, situation, or any other stimulus. In this case we want exposure to those triggers to be gradual and done with care.
*Practice self-compassion– social relationships come with two sides: vulnerability and connection. Self-compassion allows us the support we need to tolerate vulnerability. Self-compassion can act as a guide to help us set up boundaries (remembering compassion is both tender and fierce). Self-compassion also gives us permission to be okay with discomfort, offering support and care when we need it.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-5: Penguin Books. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: Oakland, CA, New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York: William Morrow.
Written by Alison Campbell, Registered Psychologist with Wildflowers