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Treatment of Social Phobia
Social situations: Provocateurs of anxiety?

Most people feel anxious in some specific social situations, such as when giving an unfamiliar speech in front of a group of esteemed peers.   However, for around 1 in 10 people, the level of anxiety they experience in social situations or when performing for others is so high that their lives have been significantly affected.   Is this the case for you?   Your anxiety may be fairly circumscribed, occurring in only one or couple of areas of your life (eg when giving speeches in front of strangers) or it may cut across most or all areas of your life.

Generally, social anxiety is driven by a fear of being judged negatively by others.   This fear often leads people to either feel extremely distressed in social situations or to try and avoid them.   The result of this is that there is a lack of positive social experiences (and thus, the anxiety continues).   So what can be done?   How can you learn to feel more relaxed socially?

Firstly, it is important to understand why the anxiety is occurring. Remember, anxiety is an emotion that has survived the process of evolution as it has been found to be helpful. How is it helpful? As mentioned above in the article titled Anxiety: Helping or hindering?, anxiety is experienced to protect you and to assist you in challenging situations.   It generally occurs when you perceive yourself to be in danger.   But how is a social situation dangerous?   If you suffer from low self-esteem you may worry about other people judging you negatively.  

Worrying about how other people see you may lead to your being on the lookout for any behaviour by them that may possibly indicate that they are evaluating negatively.     It may also lead to you paying attention to your own behaviour and how it may come across.   Am I making enough eye contact?   Is my voice quivering? Am I sweating or looking red?   Am I mumbling?   Is this gap in the conversation too long?   Are any of these questions familiar to you?

We all only have a limited attentional capacity. By focusing on what others think about you and on how you may come across to them there is less attention available to be focused on the task at hand (i.e. socially appropriate behaviours, such as listening to the conversation – this may sound familiar if you have a tendency to ‘go blank' during social interactions?).   Also, you make it much more likely that any negative events, even minor ones, are perceived and interpreted in an anxiety-provoking way.   It is also possible that neutral or even positive behaviours by others are interpreted as indicating something negative about you! For example, if you notice someone yawn during your presentation you may think “my presentation is so boring, everyone must think I'm incompetent!” (when really, the unfortunate chap may have been up all night with a screaming baby for all you know!).    

Do you conduct a “post-mortem” after social situations, where you review any undesirable behaviours in which you may have engaged or any possible negative feedback that you received by others.   This all keeps the anxiety in social situations going.

So how can you decrease your anxiety in social situations?   Learning some relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or slow breathing techniques, may be helpful.   Relaxation exercises can decrease your muscle tension, blood pressure, heart rate, rate of respiration, and overall nervous system arousal.

Try to not overprepare for social situations and worry about how you will perform (often easier said than done, I know.   If you need assistance with this please phone me on 1800 768 411).  Remind yourself that you cannot predict the future (I would love to borrow that crystal ball if it works!) and that worrying about what will happen only serves to make you more anxious.

When in social situations, focus the content of the conversation or topic and try to minimise the time you spend focusing on yourself or other people's responses to you.

Try to challenge your thinking.   Remind yourself that you cannot read minds and that you do not know what other people are thinking about you and that other people are probably thinking more about themselves and what they are saying than on you.   Also, consider the consequences of someone thinking negatively about you.   Is it the end of the world if someone thinks you look silly?   It may be unpleasant, knowing that one person thinks poorly of you, but could worse things occur?   Remind yourself that just because one person thinks something, does not make it true.   Do beauty pageants have only one judge?

Try to improve your self-esteem (see the article above titled Seeing yourself clearly: 4 secrets to high self-esteem   for more information on this ) .  

Rather than avoid social situations, gradually start to confront those in which you feel anxious.   Think about the advice that you would offer a person who was afraid of water.   Perhaps you would suggest they stand close to the water at first, until they feel calm.   Then, you might advise them to put their ankles in the water and remain there until they feel calm.   Following this, they could stand in the water with it up to their knees, and so on. Try using this approach to decrease your anxiety in social situations, starting with those situations in which you feel the least anxious and progressing up to those in which you feel most anxious.

If you feel your social skills are lacking somewhat, seek assistance in developing them. Like many things, good social skills can be learnt through coaching and practice. 

Many of the techniques above can be difficult to implement on your own.   If you need assistance, please do not hesitate to call me on 1800 768 411.