It’s World Mental Health Day today (10 October) and I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about social anxiety. Social anxiety is actually something we can all experience on varying levels. As someone with a background in psychology, I know the stigma of mental health issues can often prevent people from having conversations that are really so important! I’ve written down a few tips to assist you in managing social anxiety.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety can be defined as anxiety anticipating a social situation or anxiety during or after that situation. At the heart of social anxiety is the fear of evaluation. And it’s not just negative evaluation that people worry about; it is positive evaluation as well.
Those shakes and cold sweats many of us experience when we talk in front of a group are just one example of social anxiety-an excessive fear of being judged negatively.
Any advice on managing social anxiety?
Learn to control your breath
Many changes happen in your body when you become anxious. One of the first changes is that your breathing quickens. This can lead to more physical symptoms of anxiety (like dizziness, feeling of suffocation, increased heart rate) as over-breathing throws off the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body.
Learning how to slow your breathing down can assist you in bringing your physical symptoms back to normal. Practice a breathing exercise such as this one:
- Sit comfortably with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose for 4 seconds. The hand on your stomach should rise, while the hand on your chest should move very little.
Learning how to challenge our unhelpful thoughts and see things in a more realistic light.
You are more likely to feel anxious if you believe that social situations are threatening or dangerous, . However, it is important to realize that often our thoughts are just guesses about what could happen – not the facts! Thinking about all the terrible things that can happen is just habit we have all gotten into. And, like most habits, it can be changed. The solution is not just positive thinking, but realistic thinking. Keeping a diary of these events and all the negative thoughts will show you that often what we think happened are exaggerations or distortions (Everyone was looking at me!). These thoughts induce a lot of anxiety!
Create an exposure hierarchy.
I’m sure you are wondering what an exposure hierarchy is. An exposure hierarchy is a just a fancy word for a list – (like a ladder) where you write down situations that cause you anxiety, in order of how severe they are. Then you perform the easiest behavior, and keep moving up the list.
To create your own hierarchy, list 10 anxiety-provoking situations, and rate them on a 10-point scale (zero being no anxiety; 10 being severe anxiety). Your list could start with asking a stranger where the bathrooms are in a mall and end with something more “out there” such as public speaking or giving a speech at a friends wedding.
It’s okay to seek help
It’s always important to remember that sometimes self help isn’t going to give us the breakthrough we need. There is nothing wrong with seeking the help of a psychologist, GP or mental health practitioner. I’d encourage you to speak to someone if this is an ongoing struggle you are facing.