Struggling with social anxiety? Watch the video to learn the best ways to treat social anxiety with behavior therapy, CBT and mindfulness.
How To Reduce Social Anxiety
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Do you get anxious in social situations? Maybe you feel shy or nervous or uncomfortable. Or maybe you absolutely dread some types of social situations so much that you’ll do anything to avoid them altogether. Almost everyone experiences social anxiety to some degree. Any type of interaction with others can be a potential trigger. In this video, we’re going to learn how to reduce social anxiety with strategies from behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, and mindfulness.
So first, let’s look at the behavioral component. Treating any source of anxiety benefits from what’s known as exposure. This means putting ourselves in situations that we’re anxious about, which helps us become more comfortable in them. It acts as a sort of experiment that allows us to test our hypotheses, beliefs, and expectations about what we think is going to happen. We learn that these situations aren’t as big a threat as we fear. Things usually don’t go as badly as we predict they will, and the outcomes we’re most worried about usually don’t happen. Even if they do, we’re generally better able to cope with them than we expected. All of which helps us feel less anxious about these and similar situations in the future.
There’s a step-by-step process for exposure therapy that I talk about in another video. But we can also do exposure more informally and apply the principles from exposure therapy to the anxiety-provoking social situations and interactions we experience in the course of our everyday lives.
So let’s look at an example. We’re invited to a social event where we won’t know most of the people, and we’re anxious that we won’t fit in or have anyone to talk to. Now our first inclination might be avoidance – to just turn down the invitation because then we don’t have to feel anxious about it anymore. But if we avoided everything that gives us social anxiety, we wouldn’t have much of a social life, and we don’t want that for ourselves. We’d love to feel more comfortable in social situations in general, so we decide to take a bit of a risk and go and just see what happens. Treat it as an opportunity for learning.
So beforehand, we ask ourselves: What am I expecting or predicting will happen? Well, I won’t know anyone there, and I’ll feel really uncomfortable. Nobody will talk to me, and I’ll feel self-conscious and just wish I’d stayed home.
And what am I most worried about? Someone will try to start talking to me, but I won’t know what to say, and I’ll be really awkward and just embarrass myself.
And are there any feelings or emotions I’m afraid I’ll experience that I won’t be able to tolerate? I’ll be so anxious that I’ll find it difficult to carry on a conversation, or I might even have a panic attack and embarrass myself in front of everyone.
And then we put ourselves in this situation. We go to the gathering and see what happens.
And then afterward, we ask ourselves: What happened? Did our predictions, expectations, or worries come true? I barely knew anyone there, and I did feel uncomfortable and self-conscious at times. But people were friendly and talked to me, and I was a little awkward but still able to hold up my end of the conversation. And were we able to tolerate our feelings and emotions? I did feel nervous and anxious at times, but it was manageable and didn’t prevent me from being able to talk to people. And I didn’t come close to having a panic attack.
And how was this outcome different from what we predicted, expected, or feared? Well, people were friendlier than I’d expected, and the situation never really felt out of place. I was able to carry on conversations with people I didn’t know. And even though I didn’t have the greatest time, it was okay and better than staying home by myself.
And what did I learn from the experience? I can go to a social gathering where I barely know anyone, and people will be friendly and start talking to me. Even if I am feeling uncomfortable or awkward or anxious, I can still manage to carry on a conversation and at least not have a terrible time and feel like I need to escape and go home.
But when we expose ourselves to things we’re anxious about, they’re not always going to go that well. So what if nobody comes up to talk to us, and we’re too anxious to approach people we don’t know? And we start feeling a bit panicky, and we end up off by ourselves on our phones most of the night until we feel so self-conscious we go home without even talking to anyone. So this outcome was as bad as we’d expected, or maybe even a little worse. So what can we learn from an experience like this that can help with our social anxiety? Well, even though I felt really anxious, I don’t think anyone noticed, and I didn’t embarrass myself. And I learned that even though feeling anxious and self-conscious is really unpleasant and uncomfortable, it doesn’t mean anything catastrophic is going to happen. And I can tolerate these feelings without there being any serious consequences. It just means I’m going to feel uncomfortable for a while, which of course I’d rather avoid feeling, but not at the cost of having no social life.
And I learned that people won’t necessarily start talking to me. In which case, I may need to initiate some conversations myself. And the idea of doing that may cause me a lot of anxiety. But I have learned that I can tolerate anxiety without anything terrible happening. And if I ever want to feel more comfortable in these types of situations, I need to start putting myself in them in the first place. So we vow that next time we’re in a similar situation, we’re going to talk to at least two people we don’t know, even if it’s just small talk for a few minutes to gather some data and maybe find some evidence that could alter our beliefs about these types of situations, that’ll make them less anxiety-inducing in the future.
We can also reduce social anxiety by modifying our anxious thoughts, which can cause anticipatory anxiety beforehand. I won’t have anyone to talk to. I’ll be so awkward. I’ll embarrass myself. Instead, we might think, people are generally friendly at social gatherings and probably will talk to me, even if I am a little awkward. Nobody will care. But it can be really hard to believe our modified thoughts if we don’t have any actual evidence to back them up. And that’s one of the positive byproducts of exposure. It provides us with the evidence we need to help us think about these situations in the less anxiety-provoking light.
We can also modify our negative thoughts during the actual social situation. Often these involve thoughts about our performance. Instead of, ‘I’m being so awkward, why aren’t I saying anything, what’s wrong with me?’ More helpful thoughts would be things like, ‘It’s okay to be quiet sometimes. It’s natural to feel uncomfortable and shy around people I don’t know. And just because I’m feeling uncomfortable doesn’t mean I’m making others feel uncomfortable. It’s okay to just take my time to observe and listen. And I can make eye contact and smile to show that I’m paying attention.’
Someone might even ask, “Why are you being so quiet?” Which is probably just going to make us feel more uncomfortable and quiet. But they’re not making a judgment and just trying to be friendly and don’t know what to say. We can simply respond with something like, “I’m just feeling a little quiet tonight because I don’t really know anyone here.” This leads to another category of thoughts that can induce anxiety – thoughts about our feelings and emotions. Instead of, “I’m so anxious I don’t think I can talk right now,” it’s okay to feel anxious. I can take a moment to gather my thoughts before speaking. And if I stumble over my words a bit, it’s not a big deal. Other people might not even notice.
It’s also common to have anxiety-inducing thoughts about how other people are reacting to and perceiving us. “Why isn’t anyone talking to me? They won’t even make eye contact. They can tell how awkward I am. They must be avoiding me.” Instead, we can tell ourselves, “They’re probably just already engaged in their own conversations.”
Instead of, “They must be thinking how boring or awkward I am,” they’re more likely focused on themselves and their own experiences than judging me.
If I’m wondering why isn’t she making eye contact with me, maybe she’s feeling just as nervous as I am. Or maybe she’s got a lot of other things on her mind and is just distracted. Or better still, who knows? I can’t read her mind, and there’s no point in trying.
Or if I’m wondering why did she just look away when I said that, people often look away momentarily to gather their thoughts. Or it could be completely unrelated to what I said. Maybe she was just distracted by something across the room. Again, who knows? It’s important not to jump to conclusions regarding other people’s actions and behaviors. I don’t need to interpret every small action as a negative response to me.
We often have negative thoughts after a social situation – dwelling on things that didn’t go well or that we think we did or said wrong. We can modify these self-critical thoughts by looking at the situation more objectively and focusing on what actually happened. This helps us feel better in the moment and can reduce our anxiety about similar situations in the future. And if none of these modified thoughts resonate with you, you might need to come up with your own. I link to some videos in the description that can help with this.
But we also don’t want to get too caught up in trying to modify our thoughts in the midst of a social situation because that’s distracting and prevents us from being fully engaged with the people we’re interacting with.
So instead, we can respond to our thoughts mindfully – observing them without judgment and recognizing them as simply passing mental events. We tell ourselves, “This is just a thought. I don’t need to react to it or modify it or do anything about it.” Then we just let our thoughts come and go as they pass through our minds, like clouds passing through the sky. This helps us stay present and keep our attention focused on what we’re saying and the people we’re talking to. I link to some videos in the description with strategies that can help us respond to our thoughts more mindfully.
Mindfulness also helps us manage our emotions. If we’re feeling embarrassed or ashamed, we can simply acknowledge the feeling and accept that we’re feeling this way right now. Maybe first with a little CBT, telling ourselves it’s okay. Everyone has awkward moments and feels embarrassed at times. Nobody is really judging me as much as I think. And then mindfulness – this feeling will pass. And even if it takes longer than I’d like and I feel uncomfortable for a while, I’ll survive.
And if we’re anxious, mindfulness allows us to notice our anxiety without becoming overwhelmed by it. Accepting anxiety is uncomfortable but just a passing emotional state. We allow our anxiety to be here but in the background of our awareness, without allowing it to consume us. As we shift the focus of our awareness towards our social interaction. I have some videos with strategies to help us be more mindful and less reactive towards our emotions. Responding mindfully to our thoughts and emotions can be easier said than done and take some practice. That’s why practicing mindfulness on a regular basis is so beneficial – it helps us develop mindfulness skills that we can then apply to situations in our everyday lives.
Now earlier, we touched on how we can tend to mind read and interpret other people’s reactions in ways that suggest they’re responding negatively to us. And if we have social anxiety, we’re also more likely to notice cues in our environments that we do interpret as negative. This is known as negative attentional bias, and we can become really focused on other people’s actions and behaviors, looking for signs of disapproval or negative judgment.
For example, if we’re talking with a group of people, we might focus on the one person who’s looking at their phone and think, “Wow, I must be really boring him,” while ignoring that everyone else seems interested in what we’re saying. This is another instance in which mindfulness is beneficial. It teaches us to be aware of where our attention is at any given moment, such as scanning the room looking for signs of disapproval. And to be able to better focus our attention where we want it to be – the actual interactions that we’re having.
So the keys to reducing social anxiety are to expose ourselves to the social situations that make us anxious, rather than avoiding them. To find new ways of thinking about these situations and our abilities to perform in them that are less anxiety-inducing.
And to develop mindfulness skills that allow us to respond mindfully to our thoughts and emotions and to be more mindful and aware of what we’re paying attention to.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them on the YouTube video page.