Overcoming Social Anxiety

Feeling nervous in social situations is normal. Most of us get anxious when going to a job interview or giving a presentation at work. Social anxiety happens when this feeling of nervousness is taken to the extreme. Normal interactions cause fear and anxiety. You may be self-conscious or embarrassed due to feelings of being judged by others. There is a difference between being introverted and/or shy and having social anxiety. Feelings of shyness or discomfort aren’t always signs of social anxiety. People’s comfort levels vary by person and by social situation. Some people are naturally more reserved or shy around others.

Social Anxiety can also affect outgoing people and even outgoing extroverts. This can be rather distressing for the person as they enjoy being around people and get their energy and motivation from being around others but are also fearful and anxious about doing or saying something embarrassing.

Social anxiety becomes a disorder when these feelings interfere with your normal life. Social anxiety can lead to avoidance of normal activities, even ones that you used to enjoy. The stress can affect your work, school, and other daily routines. It’s a chronic mental illness that can be difficult to live with.

No matter how extroverted or outgoing you are we all face situations that cause anxiety. These tips are designed to help you out in those whether it be something that happens regularly when you go out or rarely in special circumstances. Please though, if you are suffering to the point that it is drastically impacting your life seek professional help of some sort.

Episode Breakdown

14:05 Give the anxious feelings a label or name.

Naming something takes away it’s power. You’ll change the way you think about it. It’s evolutionarily built into us to fear the unknown. This concept is not all bad, it’s a self preservation. The problem is like an autoimmune disease, when that self preservation gets out of hand. By making it known we remove the fear of the unknown aspect. It is not a scary unknown feeling but something that you know and can handle. This doesn’t take away the social fear or anxiety. What it does is remove the added fear of not knowing why you are feeling this way. This concept permeates literature. For example Rumpelstiltskin lost his power when named. Another example is how in Lord Voldemort is called “He Who Shall Not Be Named” for fear of the name.

By giving it a label you now have something to fight or overcome. This puts you back in control of yourself. The power is not in these thoughts and feelings. The power is in you to overcome them. Instead of being overwhelmed you are dealing with anxiety. Labeling also helps you find the right resources to overcome it. You can now look into ways to overcome social anxiety. It’s easier to search for a solution when you know the problem. Labeling it is like having a descriptive error message instead of “somethings not working right”.

Go a step further by instead simply stating that the feeling exists. Instead of “I feel anxious” say “There is anxiety”. Remove yourself from the situation. Then it becomes something to overcome. This comes from mindfulness training. You are not your feelings/emotions you are a person that experiences them.

19:15 Challenge the anxious feelings and negative thoughts.

These thoughts and emotions can feel overwhelming at first. It seems like there is nothing you can do about how you feel or think. Challenging your thought patterns can reduce the symptoms of social anxiety.

This isn’t an immediate fix, it is a longer more lasting change. You’ll have to start by identifying pervasive thoughts that increase your anxiety. These are the things that pop in your head in social situations. They can also come when thinking about social situations. Next address each thought and logically analyze it. Put the overthinking aspect of social anxiety to work for you. Challenge the presuppositions that something will go wrong. Look for ways that it can go right. Replace the negative thoughts with positive the ones you just created. Question where the negative thoughts come from and why you think that way. Ask yourself if the reaction is actually how you feel. Do you just assume the worst? Understanding where the thoughts come from can help you better reign them in. Keep doing this every time you have anxious thoughts or feelings. This is a slow process as you are training your mind to think differently. Consistency is the key to success here.

Work to reduce and avoid thoughts about how you will be perceived by others. These can be pervasive and cloud your mind. You become so worried about how you are perceived you don’t focus on what you are doing. This will cause you to make the embarrassing mistakes you are trying to avoid. Don’t worry about impressing people or messing up. Focusing on yourself causes you to be self-conscious. Instead focus on the other person or people in the interaction. People get more pleasure talking about themselves. Asking questions is a great way to get to know people.

Remember that you are not a mind reader or a psychic. It’s easy to assume that others think of you the same way you see yourself when experiencing anxiety. This is the polar opposite of narcissism. You can’t know what they are thinking, you aren’t them. When gaining control of your thoughts you will have to remind yourself of this regularly. In the same way, you can’t “know” that something will go wrong. The future is unknown. As pattern matching beings we like to make predictions. Anxiety puts bad data into our pattern matching algorithms. Challenging these is not easy as you are changing the way you think.

26:25 Build a hierarchy of situations and anxiety levels.

Rate how various social situations make you feel in terms of anxiousness. On a 0-10 scale 0 would be no anxiety. 10 would be a full panic attack in public. 5 is somewhere in the middle. You may feel anxious about going into the situation. But you still are able to function.

Before a social interaction create a list of expected anxiety for every situation. Write down the situation and your anxiety level going into it. Make sure to put this on paper. You’ll then be able to review it later. Do this for all situations no matter the size, big or small. Walking into a room of long time friends. Asking a stranger a question.

After the interaction update your list with actual anxiety for each situation. You’ll likely find that the real situation was not as bad as perceived. You may replace a 9 with a 4 after the fact. You’ll see that as humans we are bad a predicting the future. The thought of doing something is scarier than actually doing it. Social anxiety will try to psych you out of social interactions. The idea of “eat the frog” comes into play here.

Once you’ve done this a while, you’ll have an ordered list of anxiety provoking situations. You’ll be able to see which situations cause the most stress before the fact. Also you can see which ones are more or less stressful in the actual interaction. This will give you an idea of where to focus on improving yourself and overcoming social anxiety. If you want to get really nerdy you can feed this into a machine learning algorithm and have it predict anxiety levels based on social situations.

31:55 Practice the skills that make you more social.

Socializing is a skill set that you have to practice to get good at doing. Some people have a natural talent for being social. They are typically outgoing and enjoy being around people. They learned these skills so early that it seems natural to them. Because of this they are constantly practicing social skills. You have to practice to get good at social interactions. This means practicing with actual interactions. Running through interactions in your head can lead to overthinking a situation. You hear all the time to practice for job interviews, it’s the same concept.

Learn to be assertive and practice this skill. Assertiveness is about being clear in what you need from others. It shouldn’t be confused with aggression. Be able to tell people what you need in a way that allows them to help find a way to meet those needs.

Learn when to say “yes” and when to say “no”. One trap that social anxiety lays is having you say “no” to everything. This becomes a habit of saying “no” to all invitations to social events. To break this habit you have to just start saying “yes” to everything. That sounds daunting but you can change your mind if needed. You’ll find though that as you go out more you’ll have less anxiety about going out. On the other side is avoiding conflict by agreeing to everything. It happens when others make unrealistic demands on you. This isn’t inviting you to social events but telling you to work every weekend. You don’t have to go along with everything everyone wants. It can be really confusing if you have multiple managers with opposing interests.

Practice saying “I’m nervous” and sharing your experiences. No matter how experienced or talented everyone gets nervous at times. Public speaking is a big one for a lot of people. It’s completely acceptable to say you are nervous. This applies to social settings as much as public speaking. Sometimes the fear is that people will know you are nervous. People will respect you for saying it. Sharing your experience can be valuable to you and others. It helps you realize that you are not alone. It also brings more awareness.

44:35 Seek out situations where you can be social and use your skills.

It’s important to get yourself into social situations to learn how to handle them. It can be tempting to avoid anything that makes you anxious. You need to make an effort to go to places and do things that make you uncomfortable. Try something scary at least once a week or month if just starting. You won’t expand your comfort zone without stretching it and stepping out of it. Don’t go into social situations unprepared though.

You have to make an effort to be more social. Go out and look for supportive environments that help overcome your fears. This could be anything from a meetup group to a class at the local community center. There’s even a group for Outgoing Introverts here in Nashville. If overwhelmed start with a social skills training class. That way you can practice these skills in a safe environment. You’ll make friends who can give you advice as well.

Volunteering is a great way to get out and be helpful. You’ll be able to focus on the activity but still be social. Conferences are great for this because you can be around other developers. They are always in need of volunteers. Mostly to monitor and assist in break out sessions and rooms. Take it slow and don’t over extend yourself.

48:20 Improve your physical health to improve your mental health.

Anxiety causes more than just emotional symptoms it can create physical ones as well. Pounding in your chest, increased heart rate, and muscle tension are just a few of the outward symptoms. These can be distressing as they are similar to other physical ailments.

Poor physical health can contribute to anxiety. Regular exercise, especially cardio helps reduce the symptoms of anxiety. If you feel your heart is pounding out of your chest do some cardiovascular exercise. Get your heart rate to the level that it feels it’s at. As it naturally comes down it will reset that sense of dread/doom. Diet can also effect our emotions. Comfort foods are good as a rare treat or way to comfort in stressing situations. They stop being comforting when that’s all we eat. Too much caffeine can mimic the symptoms of anxiety.

Avoid mind altering drugs, including tobacco and alcohol. Nicotine is a Central Nervous System stimulant. It will increase the symptoms of anxiety. The “jitters” that it “calms” are actually withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol may be a “social lubricant” but it’s not a long term solution. It’s too easy to become reliant on a few drinks to make it through socializing. It doesn’t actually deal with the anxiety or fear. It just lowers your inhibitions so you don’t care about them. They are still there and tend to come back worse later.

When feeling anxious take a moment to focus on your breathing. Breath control helps you by providing a focus. It helps you by bringing your focus to the current moment. You cannot get back a breath you’ve already taken. Also you cannot control a breath you haven’t taken yet. There are several techniques for relaxation and calming using breath control. The simplest is to slowly breath in counting as you do. Then slowly exhale to one more count than you breathed in. Repeat this several times until you have refocussed on the present.

52:10 Seek help when and if you need it.

If your symptoms are severe seek professional help. Don’t wait until you are in crisis to get help. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has a 1-800 number (1-800-950-NAMI).

Professional help can take many forms. Psychiatrists tend to treat the worst cases of social anxiety and social phobia. They are medical doctors. You’ll likely be prescribed medication to help ease the symptoms. Psychologists have a Ph.D. in counseling or psychology. They also tend to work with more extreme cases. Many times you’ll find them working in conjunction with a psychiatrist. Counselors are mental health professionals with a masters level education and specific training. They provide services to moderate to severe cases of social anxiety. Many times they are overseen by a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Avoid working on it on your own by joining a support group. This could be a group that meets in person or online. Having others around that are going through the same thing is comforting. Use the group to encourage others and be supportive.

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