Dealing With Social Anxiety: How to Rise and Shine

Dealing with Social Anxiety: How to Rise and Shine

Most of us have experienced some sort of anxiety in a social setting. Meeting someone’s parents, a job interview, giving a speech, a party, a dinner – who hasn’t been there? Sometimes though, the feelings that come about are intense and unbearable, and the overwhelming temptation is to jet yourself well away from wherever the action is.

Know that this is absolutely fine – you don’t have to show up and shine at every social gathering you’re asked to, but at the same time, you don’t want anxiety to hug you too tightly too often and get in the way of your relationships, your work, or your life.

You’ll know when it’s gone too far, but also know that there are things you can do to turn it around.

If you’re prone to that awful anxious feeling, there’ll be no need to explain the blushing, the clamminess, the sick feeling, the dry mouth, the twitches or blushing or racing heart … and the rest – you’ll know it way too well. When the feeling fades into you, or perhaps it’s more like a barreling, you might typically set about telling yourself with full force that there’s nothing to worry about. Maybe people from that tribe of yours who have watched you go through it, and would do anything to help you feel better, also tell you there’s nothing to worry about. Most likely though, it just doesn’t work.  

One of the things about being human is that even when you know what to do, or what not to do, it doesn’t mean that you’re suddenly going to be able to do it – otherwise we’d all be able to swing a tennis racket, Wimbledon style.

One of the most powerful steps in controlling any sort of anxiety is understanding why it feels the way it does.

‘Social Anxiety … Why oh why do you do this to me?’

Anxiety feels like it happens instantly but actually, it doesn’t. There are a few things that happen leading up to it that are completely out of awareness. That’s why anxiety can feel like it’s a surprise. And not a good one.

Evolution is a pretty amazing thing and millions of years of it have made your body crazy good at responding to threat. The human body is amazing, and yours will have you ready to deal with danger before you’re even aware that there’s anything to worry about. It responds the same way every  time it feels under threat, and it’s been responding that way since our cave-ancestors.

The problem is, sometimes what it senses as a threat isn’t really a threat, but it responds as though it is anyway, surging your body with cortisol (the stress hormone,) adrenalin and other neurochemicals to fuel you up to run for your life or fight for it. If there’s no actual danger, then you don’t have to run or fight, and there’s no way to burn of the neurochemical fuel that’s surging through you. It builds up and causes each one of the physical symptoms that come with anxiety. See here for a full explanation.

Let’s look at how this works with social anxiety.

  • First there’s the old memories.

    As you get ready to do something socially that feels uncomfortable, you instantly remember earlier similar experiences that may have been difficult for you. (Everyone would have had this happen at some point, sometimes in a good way. Let’s say, for example that you’re walking around a market somewhere, and all of a sudden you smell a familiar smell. Before you’ve even realised what the smell is, memories of summer weekends flood you, as though they’re happening now – your body relaxes, you feel happy – and all before you’ve figured out that the smell was the sunscreen you used on your beach weekends.)

  • Then the old feelings (that belong back with those memories).

    As soon as you remember previous experiences – the moment it happens – your mind calls up the feelings from that experience (e.g. anxiety, fear, self-doubt) and your body feels them as though they’re happening now. 

  • Those old thoughts. 

    Anxious feelings come with anxious thoughts. The ‘what-ifs’ settle in and get comfy in your head and you question your capacity to cope. ‘What if you struggle again?’ ‘What if you mess things up?’ ‘What if you run out of things to say?’ ‘What if you say something stupid?’ These thoughts might not even register in your awareness. They often happen automatically, behind the scenes, and the first you’ll know of them is the overwhelming urge to turn back, run away, not show up or vomit.

  • And the pictures of what might happen.

    At the same time, the mental images of you not coping, or falling apart in front of everyone, start to make their way into your head. In the same way your body responds to memories of the past, it also responds to your imaginings of the future as though the future is happening now. If the image is one of you struggling with another social situation, your mind will protect you from the fall by screaming at you to stay away from wherever you’re going. It will surge you with neurochemicals so you can flee from the danger (because fighting it fisties-style won’t do you much good). It’s just a healthy body trying to protect you because a healthy, though over-sensitive, mind has told it that it’s in danger.

  • Now you’re ‘anxious about the anxiety’.

    Eventually you learn to fear the physical sensations that come with an anxiety attack. You become ‘anxious about the anxiety’, so even if you know that you’re safe, it’s hard to trust that the anxious feelings won’t ambush you like they’ve done plenty of times before. The feelings feel awful, and when it’s all happening out of awareness, it’s frightening, confusing and you’d do anything to avoid it – which is often exactly what you do.

As you can see, even though anxiety feels as though it comes from nowhere, it doesn’t. That’s good news – great news actually – because it means that by being aware of what’s happening a few steps earlier, before your anxiety is in full swing, you can slow things down and manage it. 

Anxiety is about physiology. Control the physiology, and you’ll control the anxiety.

To change the feeling of anxiety, you have to get control of the physiology. When you’re stressed, your heart rate speeds up and influences what happens in your brain. Specifically, it closes down the frontal lobes – the logical, thinking part – and leaves the impulsive, instinctive, emotional part in full control. The party’s on but there’s no supervision.

Anxiety starts in the emotional, impulsive, instinctive part of the brain and when it’s strong, it floods the thinking part of the brain and shuts it down. When there’s real danger, this is a good thing. If a wild dog is staring at you with its teeth glistening, you don’t want the thinking, logical part of your brain to be making you wait while it figures out where the dog might have come from and the merits of running – or not – from an angry-looking dog that’s staring you down like you’re a hunted thing. You just want out of there. Never mind anything else.

When the thinking and feeling parts aren’t connected, you’re acting on raw instinct and even when you’re safe, there’s no way for the ‘calm down – you’re safe’ messages to influence behaviour and bring calm.

This is where taking control of your physiology is key. Starting with breathing. 

Slow deep breathing triggers the relaxation response, discovered by Harvard cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson. Slow, strong breathing changes heart rate, which in turn changes what happens in your brain. Rather than your actions being driven purely by what you’re feeling, slow deep breaths re-engage the thinking part of the brain and connect it to the emotional, instinctive part. When this happens, your response will less automatic and more under your control. You still might feel anxious, but you’ll be less likely to be taken out by the physical symptoms. 

Social Anxiety … Specifically.

  1. Nobody can see what’s happening to you the way you can.

    It’s likely that you’ll feel as though the physical symptoms of social anxiety are more obvious to other people than they actually are. The truth is, most people won’t notice at all, and if they do, they won’t think twice about it because it just won’t be important to them.

  2. Fight or flight? Choose ‘fight’ when you can.

    Social anxiety means your fight or flight response is fully charged. You’ll want to take flight – you really will – but hold off for a moment and remind yourself that you have a choice. You can stay and fight. Your anxiety is there to protect you. Breathe and let it feel that you have the control, because you do. You will always be stronger than you think you are.

  3. Find the thoughts that drive your feelings.

    Feelings are always fed by thoughts, but you won’t always be aware of those thoughts. When the thoughts are out of your awareness, they’re also out of your control, which means the behaviour they’re driving (the anxiety) is also out of your control. Think of it like being in a dark room. If you can’t see what’s there, you’re going to bump into things. Sometimes you’ll probably fall – pretty hard. When you turn on the light, the ‘things’ will still be there, but you’ll be able to see them and work around them. They won’t get in your way and you’ll be able to stay on your feet – steady, strong, brilliant.

    But first to get a handle on the thoughts … stay with the anxious feeling long enough to be aware of the thoughts that drive it. They’ll be there. The earlier you do this the better. It’s going to be pretty much impossible to do when you’re in the thick of an attack. The more you are aware of your thoughts in the moment, the more you can catch yourself and act more deliberately. Do you want to act as though they the thoughts are true? Or do you want to step around them?

  4. Talk yourself strong. Then act as if.

    Your body responds to thoughts as though those thoughts are real. When you tell yourself that you can’t handle a situation, your body will think you’re in danger and release neurochemicals to help you deal with it by fighting or fleeing. If there’s no danger, there’s no need to fight or flee and the neurochemicals will build up and bring about the physical symptoms of anxiety.  Tell yourself you’re strong and that you can cope – because you are, and you can – and your body will organize itself to support you. You don’t have to believe it – just act like you do and your body will respond as though it’s true. Your body is pretty amazing like that.

  5. Mind your mind-body connection.

    What happens in your body affects how you feel, but I don’t need to tell you that because you’re anxious body has been causing all sorts of havoc with how you feel, right? With anxiety, the physiology – what happens in your body – is often automatic and out of awareness, but it doesn’t have to be. If you know you have something coming up that is going to cause trouble for you, find somewhere private beforehand to strike a power pose and hold it for two minutes. Research by Amy Cuddy has shown that this will increase testosterone (the dominance hormone) and reduce cortisol (the stress hormone). A power pose is any pose that expands you and assumes a position of power. Think Wonder Woman – hands on hips, feet apart. Or Superman – arms stretched out in front of you, fists clenched, body expanded – or any pose that makes you feel ‘powerful’. 

  6. Immunise yourself.

    Immunisation works by taking in a little of whatever it is that your body reacts against, and using it to stimulate your own protective antibodies. With anxiety, the more you avoid a situation, the more sensitive you’ll be to it. So if you’re socially anxious, move towards social things as much as you can, to build up your strength and ‘immunity’ to the physiological effects. Go steady though – you don’t need to do it all at once. 

  7. There will always – always – be someone who has gone through what you’re going through.

    Every time you walk into a room, there will be other people there who will know exactly what it’s like to go through an anxiety attack. That’s how common it is. We all have our vulnerabilities. If it’s not anxiety, it will be something else. The risk with social anxiety is that in protecting yourself from judgement and rejection, you’ll close down to the richness and potential of others. Decide that you’re enough – so much more than enough – and other people will follow that. If they don’t, probably best that they move out of your way so the ones who deserve you can find you. (But you’ll be surprised with how many people will want to be around you anyway.) Again, if you don’t believe it, when you walk into a room act as though it’s true – your body and your mind has trouble telling the different.

  8. It wants you to know …

    One of the things that makes anxiety so frightening is that it seems to come out of the blue. As you are approaching the social situation, breathe and try to sit with your anxiety, rather than be rolled along by it. How is it making itself known to you? What is it asking you to be afraid of? What is it trying to protect you from? What does it have to tell you about yourself? Perhaps it is to feel the edges of yourself, and to feel your courage in the face of that. Perhaps it is being okay with saying no. Try to see it in a positive light as the protective force that it is,  rather than as something that is trying to bring you down.

  9. It’s ok to think about the future. Just don’t unpack and live there.

    When you’re anxious, your mind takes you to the future, unpacks, and leaves you there until you’re safe and sound and well away from whatever it is that has you worried. Once you have experienced social anxiety a few times, the prospect of being in another social situation will have you heavily on guard – senses switched on to high – watching for signs of anything that ‘feels bad’ in your body or in your environment. The more vigilant you are, the more the neurochemicals will surge through you – just in case you have to deal with something awful. This in turn will intensify the symptoms.

    Here’s what to do – try to surrender some of your attention. Rather than thinking about what might happen next, turn your attention to what is. This might feel worse at first, but stay with it. Every time you do it, you’re strengthening the neural connection between the emotional, instinctive, reactive part of your brain and the thinking, logical part of your brain that disconnect during anxiety. The idea is to ‘teach’ it to stay connected, as that it’s that connection that protects against anxiety. Have a plan if that will help you feel better and know that your safety net is there if you need it – just try not to keep looking for the times that you need it. Rather than focusing in on your worries and everything that could go wrong, try to connect in some way with the world outside of yourself. See, feel, smell, hear. Be fully present in the moment and curious what’s happening around you. I know this isn’t easy, but it makes a difference.

  10. Reframe. You’re not nervous … you’re excited.

    Reframing feelings is really powerful. Anxiety and excitement have their similarities. Both have high arousal and other physiological experiences – sweating, butterflies, racy heart, at their core. Here’s the thing – labelling a feeling as ‘anxiety’ sets you up to think of everything that could go wrong. Re-labelling the feeling as ‘excited’ brings opens the way to more positive, happier, more productive thoughts of what might be. Rather than thinking of the threats, you think of the opportunities. According to Harvard researchers, even if you’re not convinced at first, saying ‘I’m excited’ out loud increases real feelings of excitement.’

Anyone who has had anxiety will likely understand how ineffective it is when someone says, ‘just relax’. Being able to relax is important, but it’s also important to be able to accept where you are – you don’t want to put pressure on yourself to ‘do’ something in an already demanding situation. If you can accept where you are, breathe, feel it, receive it and be kind to yourself about what’s happening, the anxiety will ease. The more you push against it, the more it will push back. Remember that it’s there to protect you, and if it thinks you’re not listening, it will yell louder.

There is no right or wrong way to do this. Tell yourself that you can do this. You are doing this. You’re feeling anxious, and that’s okay – because anxiety or no anxiety, you’ll get through this. 

4 Comments

Miriam

Oh, this is a fantastic article. Thank you for the different steps to use. It’s good to have tools in your back pocket for these inevitable situations. I’m saving and sharing this one for sure. Very insightful.

Reply
ThomasV

Good tips! I also think social anxiety has a lot to do with the inner critic (the voice inside your head) who tries to prevent insecurity in your life.

Dealing with that one helped getting rid of social anxiety for me.

Keep up the good work!
Thomas

Reply
Ness

This was really helpful thanks 🙂 Some of the suggestions I haven’t even heard of yet and I am keem to try them!

Reply

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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