What is Social Anxiety?

Those who have social anxiety fear social situations. This fear could be felt in all social situations or it could be about a specific kind of social situation: public speaking, going to parties, attending meetings, talking to classmates or colleagues, making phone calls, eating in public, buying something from a store, etc. The anxiety experienced in these social situations is strongly connected to the fear of being judged negatively by others.

Those of us who have other fears such as claustrophobia (fear of closed places), phobia of heights or animals find ways to completely avoid situations that trigger the fear. However, having social anxiety can be really difficult because one must face social situations multiple times a day, every day.

As social situations are not completely avoidable, people with social anxiety, gradually learn to adopt ‘buffer behaviours’. Buffer behaviours are actions that help us create a ‘safety net’ or a ‘buffer’ around us, when it is not possible to avoid being in a social situation. These behaviours bring us temporary respite from our fear, and so, we begin to use them often. Over time, we end up creating these buffers so automatically, that they prevent us from experiencing even positive experiences fully.

Some examples of buffer behaviours are:

  • Staying next to a familiar companion around at a social gathering or a party
  • Volunteering to do ‘behind-the-scenes’ work for a group project
  • Rehearsing asking your colleague to pass you the water
  • Avoiding going to places where you could run into people you know
  • Avoiding making/answering phone calls
  • Over-rehearsing a speech line by line
  • Avoiding eye contact during meetings/class so you don’t get invited to a discussion
  • Sitting separately during lunch/tea breaks to avoid conversations with others
  • Using excuses to opt out of invitations to spending time with others

What lies behind social anxiety?

With any other fears or anxieties, usually, repeated exposure to the feared situation or object, eventually helps the person overcome the fear. However, those of us facing social anxiety end up in a social situation very often and yet, do not seem to ‘stop fearing them’.

So what is different about social anxiety?

David Clark and Adrian Wells presented a model in 1995 explaining how people with social anxiety experience a certain pattern of thoughts which trigger feelings of anxiety and maintain that state of mind. They say that on the basis of past incidents, people with social anxiety develop a set of assumptions and beliefs about themselves and others. These thoughts get activated in a social situation, thereby making the person anxious.

To understand this better, let’s imagine that for people with social anxiety, there is a loud Critical Judge sitting inside their minds, continuously talking to them and giving commands, making them feel anxious and demotivated. It is a helpful exercise to become aware of what these commands are and which of these could be the ones that we strongly believe in:

  • I must not make any mistakes
  • I must sound intelligent all the time
  • Everyone must like me
  • I must not feel anxious
  • I must behave perfectly all the time

In a social situation, the Critical Judge inside our minds throws a spotlight on ourselves, making us feel like everybody is keenly observing us. This internal spotlight makes us highly self-conscious and brings to our notice, minute details about our “performance”. Each piece of this information about the performance is then compared to very high standards, which come from the commands pre-decided by the Critical Judge. Thus, a continuous evaluation of every action, every word spoken, is taking place in the minds of these individuals, resulting in an incessant flow of anxiety.

The Critical Judge also searches the external situation for possible sources of threat. This means, that we become very sensitive to perceiving cues of criticism or humiliation. The Critical Judge makes us feel that even neutral or harmless remarks, expressions or gestures were meant to criticize or disapprove of us.

In addition, sometimes, while we are already feeling anxious, the Critical Judge tells us it is wrong to feel anxious and this leads to feeling anxious about being anxious. By doing so, we become hyper-sensitive to the signs of anxiety in our body – we notice that our heart is beating too fast and we may constantly feel aware of the funny feeling in our guts. Becoming aware of these sensations makes us worry that we are going to fail and eventually, we lose the capacity to stay fully present in the moment.

 What can one do about social anxiety?
 
As mentioned earlier, simply ‘facing one’s fears’ isn’t the solution for a person experiencing social anxiety. The key lies in learning to think differently about these fears.
 

1. Question the Critical Judge:

When in any social situation, as you feel your anxiety rising, pause and become aware of the Critical Judge talking. Why it is not a great idea to obey this Critical Judge is because its judgments are aimed at making you feel anxious, helpless and ashamed. Such internal self-talk also forms the basis for low self esteem. Additionally, though the Critical Judge may be quite powerful, it is not always right. Most of the times, its judgments have several loopholes and its bases are faulty. With practice, you can learn to identify these gaps and challenge this Judge to make it less powerful.

First, try and recognize the voice of the Critical Judge.

Think about all the times people around you, have made a social faux pas: when someone dropped their spoon at a restaurant, someone stammered while they spoke, someone gave a wrong answer in class, somebody’s joke didn’t take off. What were your reactions to these people – did you form mental judgments to hold them against or did you brush these instances off as slip-ups that are normal and commonplace in any social situation? Chances are, you were able to easily forgive them. Knowing that, it is also possible to extend the same forgiveness to your own self. Think then, is it so much about others judging you or a part of your own mind that is making these judgments about you?

Once you start becoming aware of the Critical Judge talking, gradually start challenging and questioning it.

a. Think about people that you like. Are there certain things about them that you dislike? Now, think about people that you dislike. Are there certain things about them that you admire? If you answered yes to both or even one of these questions, it means that we may not always like each and everything about every person. There could be some aspects/qualities about you that others may like and some that they may not like. Expecting everybody else to like you wholly is like expecting you to like everybody wholly.

b. The Critical Judge tends to use strong words like ‘never’, ‘always’ and ‘completely’ that could create a negative impact and make you more anxious. Catch these thoughts and see if they are realistic or exaggerated:

  • “You totally ruined it!” (Think, did you TOTALLY ruin it?)
  • “You are a complete fool!” (Think, are you a COMPLETE fool? Can you do nothing right?)

c. Sometimes, the Critical Judge makes negative predictions, which again contribute to your anxiety. Understand that it automatically makes you assume that the most negative, catastrophic conclusions are true and doesn’t let you think of other alternatives:

  • “If you stammer, you will fail this interview” (What are other possibilities/outcomes?)
  • “He didn’t notice you in the corridor. He really hates you!” (What could be other explanations?)

d. The Critical Judge makes you focus on your anxiety and then makes conclusions on the basis of how you are feeling. Understand that these conclusions are faulty as they may not be based on an assessment of the actual situation:

  • “I can’t seem to breathe and my mouth feels dry. I shouldn’t be feeling this way – I definitely don’t belong here.”
  • “My heart is beating too fast and my palms are sweaty. I am definitely going to make a mistake.”

2. Know that feeling anxious does not necessarily have to be a bad thing.

In fact, an optimal amount of anxiety is essential to make us feel motivated. Feeling some amount of anxiety before giving a speech to an audience, making a presentation at college, while meeting new people or before any kind of a performance – is quite normal and is experienced by almost everyone.

3. Practise being okay with imperfections.

One of the factors that helps social anxiety thrive is the need to be perfect at all times. To practise this, look out for harmless social situations where being imperfect won’t cost you or anybody else anything. You could try being indecisive while ordering your food at a restaurant, take time to hunt for change at a grocery store, make grammatical mistakes while asking for directions from a stranger, attempt to answer a question in class which you suspect might be incorrect.

The Critical Judge may not like this and will want you to be absolutely perfect. Tell yourself, “It’s okay to be imperfect sometimes.”

When you start feeling comfortable making mistakes in a social situation, you could practise simply being yourself in different situations. You can start by making a list of different situations that evoke anxiety and rank them, starting from least anxiety provoking (buying something from a shop) to most anxiety provoking (going on a first date) and go through these experiences one by one, in increasing order of difficulty.

You will notice that by being able to silence the Critical Judge, you are able to be yourself and feel calm in these social situations.

4. Be mindful. 

People experiencing social anxiety are constantly multitasking in their minds – scanning the environment for cues of criticism and failure, paying attention to bodily signs of anxiety, listening to the Critical Judge in their minds and imagining negative consequences in the future. Practising mindfulness helps one stay in the present and to focus attention and energy directly in experiencing the situation, rather than in interpreting or evaluating it.

Much of the anxiety in a social situation comes from the thoughts and conclusions made by our own mind, than from the situation itself. Becoming aware of this automatic process and learning to see through these thoughts will help you feel more comfortable in social situations.

Post contributed by: Sindhura Tammana

Image Credit: Apps for Europe