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. 

5 Comments

Shanta S

This article was so friendly in its tone, I felt amazing just reading it!! I’ll always keep in mind to ‘reframe’ my thinking pattern and talk myself into believing a reality I want to believe! Thank you! 🙂

Reply
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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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