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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.