If you find yourself anxious in a variety of social situations, such as speaking in front of a group, meeting new people or even using public facilities, and if you fear that people will see your anxiety and humiliate you, then it might be time to cope with your social anxiety.
The good news is that you can do something about it. For a start, just stop avoiding social events and don’t rely on self-medication. Cognitive behavioural therapists have made great advances for a drug-free approach to deal with anxiety problems. So what are you avoiding actually? The behavioural problem for people with social anxiety is the tendency to avoid anxiety-provoking situations. When the socially anxious individual anticipates going to a party, she or he becomes quite anxious, but then decides not to go and the anxiety immediately decreases. This reduction of anxiety reinforces avoidance. This simple ‘reward for avoidance’ maintains the fear of negative social evaluation. It’s all stick and no carrot. For example, if you feel anxious thinking about approaching someone you like and then decide to avoid them, your anxiety immediately drops. As a result, you learn to avoid people. That’s why, you should learn to confront your fears and realise that this step is empowering. If you like someone, go and start with a simple Hello. Don’t care about how it might end.
You’ll begin to realise that you’re THE kind of person who can actually do THIS kind of thing. The simple thing you can start with is to make a list of the situations that you feel anxious in or avoid. For example, meeting people at a party, speaking up in front of colleagues and talking with your boss. You can rate each anticipated behaviour from 0 to 10 in terms of the level of anxiety that you might expect. For example, if you don’t know how to ask your supervisor for a promotion, make a list following the hierarchy of your fear (from least to highest): 1) thinking of going to his or her office, 4) seeing other people in the room, 8) deciding to start a conversation, 10) asking about the wanted promotion, and so on.
After you have your list, another helpful strategy to cope with anxiety is to identify your safety behaviours and eliminate them. In other words, get out of your comfort zone. Many people who are anxious engage in superstitious behaviours that they think make them safer or less likely to humiliate themselves. For example, using alcohol or drugs, avoiding eye contact, wiping hands and talking very fast. The problem with safety behaviours is that they are like the training wheels on a bicycle – you can’t ride without them, but if you don’t try without them, you’ll never learn to do it properly. So next time you have a presentation, don’t drink a glass of whisky before it but simply train in front of the mirror.
It is very important to challenge your anxious thoughts. That’s why it’s a cognitive therapy as well – it’s all about your thoughts. You are often thinking about how badly things will go. For example, you predict that everyone will notice that you are sweating in class. You can challenge these thoughts by asking yourself the following: “Have I ever made a fool of myself or am I just predicting the same thing over and over?” Exactly, you’re just predicting.
Once you have identified the situations that make you anxious and you have rated them from least to most anxious then you are ready to confront your fears. Start with imagining each step in the hierarchy. So, imagine that you are thinking of going to a party and stay with that image until your anxiety drops. Then move on to imagining the next step in the hierarchy: talking to people you don’t know. Keep imagining and let the anxiety flow out and away. With time the idea of going to an actual party will even sound exciting.
So it’s time for the final step: start with exposure. In other words, start practising what you fear. You can learn that you can actually do things when you are anxious. So if people notice you are sweating, it’s not a big deal. I’ll bet that almost every day we notice people who are sweating, but we don’t care. Because it is irrelevant. Take your swimming suit and go to the swimming pool now: there’s nothing scary about public lockers.
Last but not least, practice self-rewarding. Give yourself a big bag of carrots! Really, congratulations for facing your fears! Who deserves more congratulation than you for trying hard to confront what is difficult for your own body and mind? Just keep trying.
Remember that each time you face your fear you win and your anxiety loses.