How to Overcome Social Anxiety

September 3, 2018
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social anxiety

Most of us have experienced anxiety or self consciousness during a social situation. Public speaking is a common source which may include self-consciousness, embarrassment, or physical symptoms such as flushing, sweating, or trembling. Behind this experience is often automatic thinking patterns ruminating about what people might think of us. By definition,

Social anxiety disorder is “the fear of interaction with other people that brings on self-consciousness, feelings of being negatively judged and evaluated, and, as a result, leads to avoidance.”

If such symptoms lead to avoidance of social situations, panic, or retreat there are things you can do to help. For some, it can be extreme and can have a debilitating effect on their lives. There is also often worry that others will notice and judge them negatively as a consequence.

Social anxiety can come from a variety of sources:  behavioral experiences, thinking patterns, or familial connections. People can ruminate and reinforce unhelpful or distorted thinking patterns about themselves and what others think of them, which can exacerbate the symptoms. They may use a lens that will focus primarily on the negative or what they have done wrong, leading to further avoidance. By avoiding situations, the opportunity to have a positive experience is removed.

Experiencing extreme social anxiety can be associated with an increased level of self focus. By becoming distracted with one’s own personal experience, thoughts, and bodily sensations, the visibility of the symptoms can be overestimated which in turn, continues the cycle of concern.

There are well proven strategies to reduce social anxiety, which commonly involve cognitive reframing.  Making observations and becoming more aware of our thinking and interpretation patterns helps us gain awareness. The way we view and interpret cues in our environment impact the feelings we have. However, our thoughts and feelings are not always facts and need to be challenged accordingly. Taking the time to evaluate what you are thinking and considering which is a fact, opinion, assumption, or judgment can be helpful.

Try this exercise. consider a time when you felt anxious in a social situation. What thoughts were going through your mind?

Example:  If I say something stupid in the meeting, he will think I’m an idiot.

This is an unhelpful thought that will only contribute to anxiety before even arriving to the situation and will have an impact on self-esteem and self-efficacy over time.

Example:  Jim doesn’t like me. He watched by my desk every morning and does not say hello.

This is an example of over personalizing a situation due to somebody else’s neutral behavior that does not likely have anything to do with the other person. People with social anxiety tend to internalize and take behavioral cues to heart that may not even be directed at them.

Challenging this distorted thinking or unhelpful thought pattern is an important part of cognitive reframing.

Consider asking yourself the following questions to challenge unhealthy thinking cycles:

  •  is this an opinion or a fact?
  •  is there any evidence to support what I’m thinking?
  •  is there another way of looking at the situation?
  •  What is the downside of thinking this way?
  •  How is this thought pattern helping me?
  •  How can I reframe the situation in a way that leads me to a more resourceful state of mind?

After reviewing these questions, it may lead to more clarity in your interpretation. Pausing to reflect allows for a broader view and a more centered mindset.  Cognitive reframing practice is like building a muscle, results may not be immediate, but it will result in incremental improvement.  Believing that it is possible to overcome social anxiety is a great place to start!

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.