Humans are designed for connection. We thrive when we are involved in healthy, mutually beneficial relationships. Yet, for some, the idea of connecting with another person incites a wave of panic.
People battling social anxiety disorder are often terrified to meet new people, are afraid of being judged negatively by others and the consuming fear of potential embarrassment rules their thoughts. As a result, this anxiety can interfere with going to work, attending school, or doing everyday tasks.
It’s normal and expected to have a little dose of anxiety and fear in situations that warrant it. If you are lying in a tent and hear a grizzly bear rummaging around in your camp, chances are you’ll hear the thunderous sounds of your heartbeat, feel the sweat begin to form on your palms and sense a tightness in your muscles. You are experiencing the body’s fight, flight or freeze response to the perceived threat.
On the other hand, you know anxiety has become more harmful than helpful when you become consumed by fear even thinking about going to a friend’s wedding and having to interact with a swarm of strangers. Having a survival response triggered when it’s not needed can become exhausting and interfere with a person’s quality of life.
Management Tools for Overcoming Social Anxiety
Diagnosis of social anxiety disorder requires the fear to have persisted for six months or more. Some people with social anxiety disorder find ways to navigate those anxious situations but do so with crippling anxiety. The goal is to learn management tools for the anxiety to prevent it from overriding the ability to function in a social setting.
Own Your Recovery Plan
Recovery is possible but usually requires some outside help. Powerful first steps getting counseling, reading up on the variety of treatment options available, and recruiting your friends and family to support you.
Here are a few popular management techniques for those facing social anxiety disorder.
Learn to Relax
Some people are more sensitive to their environment. For an individual who experiences more intense feelings, there is a higher probability of allowing their feelings to overwhelm them in threatening contexts.
Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint where social anxiety disorder originates. Some say it’s a part of their family history while others trace it to emotional scars left by past negative social encounters. Such individuals are more likely to avoid certain social situations, which only makes the anxiety worse.
Relaxation training is designed to decrease the physical responses of your body during the fight, flight, or freeze response. Relaxation can help create opportunities to perform at our best levels.
Types of training for relaxation include yoga, focused abdominal breathing, guided imagery and progressive relaxation of the muscles. Performing these exercises once a month, won’t create long-lasting change. Taking twenty minutes a day to practice relaxing will make it more of a natural reflex.
Retrain Your Brain
Our thoughts inevitably become woven into our actions. Pay attention to the thoughts that ricochet through your mind before or during a social activity that prompts anxiety. The greater the degree of negative thought, the greater the avalanche of anxiety that occurs.
A person suffering from social anxiety disorder might think to themselves, “People will think I’m an idiot if I speak at my friend’s wedding tonight,” and they will likely feel sufficient anxiety to prevent them from making a speech. The intensity of one’s thoughts is directly related to the intensity of one’s feelings.
Thoughts must be reined in and changed to reflect a more positive outcome. Instead of thinking, “People will think I’m an idiot if I speak at my friend’s wedding tonight,” you can change your thoughts to, “My friend will treasure the memory of me speaking at her wedding tonight.” The goal is to lower anxiety levels, so the person feels the liberty to participate in a previously avoided situation.
Philippians 4:8 gives us some clues on how to structure our thinking. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
You can ask yourself a few questions to align with this verse:
Do my thoughts match the truth in God’s Word?
Are these thoughts pure and lovely?
Would I praise my current thoughts?
Take a moment to process your thoughts and look for an avenue for clarity. After asking yourself the questions above, articulate a thought that is more balanced and then speak it out loud to yourself. At first, this may be tough to do because our mind is a battlefield. Through Christian counseling, people suffering from social anxiety disorder will learn to change core beliefs that impede their day-to-day functioning.
Face Your Fears
Phobias are a result of becoming overly sensitized. The sufferer comes to relate a given stimulus to anxiety. Let’s take public speaking as an example. If a person avoids public speaking, she feels better because she gets rid of her anxiety. The more she avoids public speaking, the more intense the anxiety will be when she is faced with the having to engage in public speaking. Like riding a bike, the more you practice the better you become.
Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to create new neural connections over the course of one’s life. Though anxiety can become hardwired into a person’s brain, the brain can be “re-wired” by facing fears.
Edmund Bourne, Ph.D. in his “Anxiety and Phobia Workbook” describes it like this:
“Exposure is the process of unlearning the connection between anxiety and a particular situation. For exposure to occur, you need to enter a phobic situation directly, letting your anxiety rise and enduring the anxiety for a period of time to learn that you can actually handle your anxiety in a situation you’ve been accustomed to avoiding. The point is to 1) unlearn a connection between a phobic situation (such as driving on the freeway) and an anxiety response, and 2) gain confidence in your ability to handle the situation regardless of whether anxiety comes up. Repeatedly entering the situation will eventually allow you to overcome your previous avoidance.”
How do you eat a big meal? One bite a time. The same applies to overcoming anxiety. Begin by exposing yourself to the fear-inducing situation in small increments. So suppose that the fear is public speaking. A first step could be to imagine addressing a large crowd, all the while substituting positive thoughts in place of negative ones.
Once you’ve mastered that step, you can practice your speech in front of a mirror or camera. After that, speak in front of a small group of trusted friends or family. Finally, you are ready to speak at that staff meeting. These are confidence-building steps to overcome a debilitating fear of public speaking. You are rewiring your brain one step at a time.
Anxiety can cause people to lose their voice. Naturally, people with anxiety don’t always want to speak up. They rather tuck their heads into their shells. Being honest about your feelings and sounds hard, to the point that keeping them to yourself seems the easy way out.
Assertive communication is a clear and honest mode of self-expression. You advocate for your needs while respecting the needs of the other person. Assertive communication can help you break down communication into easily digestible chunks.
Assertive communication includes discovering what you really need, describing the way things are, opening up about your feelings, clearly stating what you want, and giving solid reasons why others should cooperate with the request.
For example, let’s say that I’m upset with a sibling who constantly borrows my clothes, but never returns them. The first step should be to understand what I really need. In this case, it would be “trust.” I gave something of value of mine, without it being returned as promised.
Now that the “need” is sorted out, I should take time to speak to my friend and describe the situation as it stands in a calm, collected manner. “Susan, I noticed that I’ve allowed you to borrow my clothes five different times, and you never returned the items.” If your feelings are hurt you can explain further, “I trusted you to return my favorite sweater and it frustrates me when it doesn’t happen.” Finally, add any requests or positive reasons for cooperation: “I need you to return my clothes when you promise or at least communicate with me if there’s a problem. This helps to build trust so that I can continue to share my favorite clothes with you.”
If Susan cares about the friendship, she will most likely apologize and return the borrowed items. This is a small example of leveraging assertive communication in common conversations. To become successful at assertive communication, it’s a best practice to learn the process and practice role-playing with a supportive person first. Before football players win the game, they spend hours practicing. It makes a difference in being more confident in social situations.
The above actions give you some idea of what can be done when anxiety attacks. Of course, anxiety is more complex than what can be covered in one article. If you are struggling with social anxiety disorder, find a Christian counselor you can trust to create a tailored recovery plan for you. Not only is recovery possible, but you can even thrive in social settings.
“Afraid,” courtesy of Joseph Gonzalez, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Stretch,” courtesy of Jacob Postuma, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Worried,” courtesy of Eneas De Troya, Flickr CreativeCommons (CC BY 2.0); “Worried,” courtesy of Had Limcaco, unsplash.com, CC0 License