Posted on 15 April 2019
Social anxiety can be a common obstacle for some, while for others it can be a debilitating part of a much deeper, much more complex struggle. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, it is the third largest mental health care problem. Perceived fears can lead to safety behaviours, but through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the F.E.A.R. acronym was developed into a four-step structure that might help you cope during times of anxiousness.
Face Everything And Recognise
Cognitive behavioural therapy teaches us that thoughts create feelings, feelings create behaviours, and behaviours reinforce thoughts. But what happens when our thoughts are irrational? Socially anxious individuals become preoccupied with their behaviour in social situations and fear that it will cause them to be negatively evaluated.1 The first step, is to recognise these thoughts for what they are. These underlying beliefs, such as” I am a failure,” and “I am worthless,” are unfounded, but that doesn’t make the feelings they create any less real. You know you have value, but nevertheless, you develop fears and preoccupations. And when you begin to use these fears and preoccupations as the foundation of your behaviour, you are then reinforcing your initial thoughts. This is when they turn into anxieties which lead to us staying home, becoming socially alienated, and suffering from mild or debilitating anxieties.
If there is someone or something that is a real threat, for example a bully in your social circle that makes you feel uncomfortable, if you don’t enjoy their company, if you feel they pick on you or make you feel unwelcome and you just can’t deal, it’s fine to avoid that situation. It’s important to be able to recognise it as that type of situation, and to make a healthy, rational choice about not going. But if you’re going to meet with friends who you normally have a great time with within the confines of a safe environment, yet you can’t help but imagine situations where you might become embarrassed or become in danger, and feel anxious about this, then maybe you are suffering from social anxiety. It is these perceived situations based on little experiential truth that causes anxiety, and one must recognise this in order to cope.
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Face Everything And Restructure
Social anxiety can often be devastating, leading sufferers to avoid social scenarios altogether to avoid the suffering. This is a safety behaviour, a coping mechanism which can sometimes exacerbate the condition. Often, the person will make up excuses to avoid a potentially uncomfortable situation. The only problem is, these behaviours are created by the anxiety to avoid the real-life situation based on a perception, that is probably imagined. But instead of falling on these coping mechanisms, affective coping skills can be learned and applied when in an uncomfortable social setting and one finds themselves feeling anxious. They’re not a long-term solution, but a first step in dealing with the problem. These tools include controlled breathing, mindfulness, and self-soothing.2
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Face Everything And Rise
This step is probably the hardest. Safety behaviours have taught us to avoid social situations, but now, we must use our affective coping tools to go out to face our fears and rise to the challenge. If you’ve been practicing your affective coping tools, now is the time to use them, but simply having the tools can be reassuring.
In uncomfortable situations, breathing becomes disrupted, uneven, and you can find it hard to catch your breath, which can lead to increased stress. According to Amy Wenzel, a leading clinical psychologist, learning to breathe from your diaphragm can help control breathing, allowing one to fully fill the lungs.2
Mindfulness meditation is typically described as non-judgemental attention to experiences in the present moment3. This can help people suffering from anxiety to realise that their fears and preoccupations are mental events, rather than facts. Using mindfulness meditation can help people overcome simply by thinking rationally through the situation.
Wenzel tells us that “Self-soothing is a technique that allows people to get through an aversive emotional reaction by focusing on and engaging in simple activities that engage one or more of the senses—vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.”2 Self-soothing essentially allows us to comfort ourselves during a difficult situation.
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Face Everything And Reflect
Reflecting on the situation is crucial in coping the next time a similar situation arises. You should try to recall what it was that triggered the anxiety. Recall if the fears you felt were realised or where they merely imagined. Mindfully consider how it was you dealt with the anxiety. Thoughts create feelings, feelings create behaviours, behaviours reinforce thoughts. Just as negative thoughts can trigger a negative cycle, so too can positive thoughts trigger a positive cycle. Reflect on the positives of the situation. Then, the next time you face anxiety, having that reflective experience will be another tool in coping with it. So, the next time you’re experiencing anxiety about a social situation, face everything and recognise, restructure, rise, and reflect.
A final note, please be aware that taking on social anxiety and how best to battle these demons can be a big task, and while this article might be helpful in coping during some situations, we are not counsellors, psychologists or doctors, so if you feel you are suffering from social anxiety, please speak to a healthcare professional. Your mental health is important. Remember, it’s ok to seek out help.
For more information, check out the following:
- Robinson, Theresa M. (ed.) 2010, Social Anxiety: Symptoms, Causes, and Techniques, Nova Science Publishers, New York.
- Wenzel, Amy 2013, Strategic Decision Making in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, American Psychological Association, Washington.
- Tang, Yi-Yuan, et al. 2015 “The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, vol. 16, no. 4, London.
By Andy Browne – Andy.Browne@rocketmail.com