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Coping with social anxiety

As humans we have all experienced times where we have felt nervous or anxious. It is very common to feel shy or uncomfortable in situations where we may be judged such as at a job interview, going to a party or presenting to a group of people. Generally, this anxiety will settle. 

Social anxiety is more intense than the feeling of nervousness or being shy. Social anxiety refers to the intense fear of social situations. People experiencing social anxiety often avoid social events altogether, due to an intense fear of being judged, embarrassed, or scrutinised by others. This level of anxiety is often quite severe, which can begin long before the event has occurred. 

For example, an individual may experience social anxiety towards attending a friend’s birthday party. They may ruminate about the event for weeks prior, make excuses to avoid the event and start having physical symptoms such as shaking on the way to the event. 

Social anxiety can disrupt one’s daily living and can often lead to withdrawal and isolation. However it is possible to recognise when this is happening and work through it with a bit of help and guidance. 

So how can we work on overcoming social anxiety? 

Communication Skills 

In social situations it can sometimes be scary to know when we can share parts of ourselves including our opinions, thoughts or experiences. When entering a group situation with new people it can be helpful to just listen in first. Listening attentively will help you grasp what the present conversation is about. You can then join in by making a comment on the current topic of conversation. 

We also respond to others using non-verbal communication. Having a relaxed posture and good eye contact can encourage others to react positively towards you as you will appear more warm and approachable

Challenge Negative Thinking

Social anxiety can often lead us to misinterpret comments or facial expressions made by others in social settings. Social anxiety can cause negative thinking patterns such as;

Mindreading; assuming that we know what others are thinking about, or they can sense how we are feeling. “They must think I’m silly”

Personalising; assuming others behaviours are caused by you. “Everyone looks disinterested; I shouldn’t have spoken about that”

Fortune telling; predicting the future and assuming you know that the worst case scenario will happen. “Everyone will laugh at me”

Catastrophising; blowing things out of proportion. “Nobody here likes me”

To combat this, we can challenge our negative thoughts to provide an alternative explanation as to what may be happening in social situations. 

  1. Think about a time where you felt anxious in a social setting
  2. Write down your negative thoughts before, during and after
  3. Challenge these thoughts by asking yourself;
  1. Is there any evidence for this thought
  2. Could there be an alternative explanation

By challenging our negative thoughts, we can begin to acknowledge that our anxious thoughts are often untrue and exaggerated. Try to find positive alternatives during this process. For example you may recognise that others may have been tired, rather than personalising their yawning towards you being a boring person. 

Gradual Exposure 

When we’re feeling anxious we often tend to avoid certain situations that make us feel this way. For example we might prefer to stay at home and watch a movie instead of going to dinner with a group of friends. In the short term avoidance can reduce emotional reactions such as anxiety. However, the more you continue to avoid things, the more intense your fear can grow and generalise. This can really reduce your confidence and limit your life by avoiding new experiences and interactions with others. 

By exposing yourself to social situations, you can develop these skills and build on your confidence to interact with others. Exposure is a step forward to breaking the avoidance cycle. 

  1. Start by identifying the situations you avoid or feel anxious towards
  2. Break this down into achievable steps 
  3. Gradually increase the difficulty as you 

A work scenario may look like: 

  • Saying hello to a work colleague
  • Asking a colleague a work-related question
  • Asking a colleague how their day has been 
  • Sitting in the lunch room 
  • Making a comment in a group situation

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