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You’ve probably heard the phrase ‘I’m going to have a drink to loosen up’ or perhaps you have said this yourself. Well- you are not alone. Social anxiety is a disorder that affects millions of Americans each year and according to the Social Anxiety Institute, it is the third largest mental health condition in the world. What is social anxiety exactly? Well, it is pretty self explanatory but social anxiety rears it’s ugly head in the form of nervousness, anxiousness, and severe uncomfortableness when someone is placed in social situations. The thought of having to be introduced to new people, making small talk, meeting important people, eating in front of people, having to ‘mingle’, the fear of being the center of attention or having to speak in front of people causes panic to set in. Not only do these psychological symptoms happen within your head, but oftentimes you will have a physiological response to that stress such as blushing, sweating, trembling, racing heart, scattered thoughts, and appearing ‘jittery’. Just today, I was attending a class at my new job and we had to go around the room and do an icebreaker exercise. As soon as this was announced, I felt my heart begin to race. This only increased up until it was my turn to speak and I felt immense pressure and fear of everyone in the room staring at me. My heart rate didn’t slow down until many minutes after and I even checked my Apple Watch to see what my heart rate was– I jumped from a 53 resting rate to an 87 BPM when I had to speak and then I finally calmed back down to a 62!!
In my personal experience and like millions of others- I have turned to alcohol to help loosen up my nerves before and during a social event.How did I regain control and conquer my fear and nervousness in social situations? Well- as you may have gathered from today’s happenings– I haven’t mastered that totally. My heart rate went through the roof and I felt stressed at the thought of doing an icebreaker in front of a large group. However- throughout the process I was telling myself to remain calm, that the fear was irrational, and I took long breathes to help me eventually calm my nerves down. I have had to force myself to separate my mind chatter, bias, and my tendency to project my fears and insecurities from reality. Like all of you–my mind chatter game is strong. I am constantly scanning my environment, observing, judging, thinking, anticipating, projecting, and evaluating. What I didn’t realize was that I was projecting my own insecurities onto other people thus creating the illusion that other people would judge me or evaluate me in some way. I swear that being a woman adds another dimension of stress with having to do hair, makeup, outfit has to be on point, etc. I remember hearing the phrase ‘women dress to impress other women, not to impress men’. I found that to certainly be true in my life; I found myself wanting to look and act my best to impress and be accepted by other women. One of my insecurities was this issue in itself- I grew up being a total girl’s girl and having more girl friends than I knew what to do with. Fast forward to becoming a mom and a military wife– having mom friends is like playing chess! I started to notice other women turning their noses up at me for literally no reason or excluding me from conversation and found myself feeling uncomfortable and awkward. I built a wall around me over the years to protect myself from getting hurt but in reality, all it did was amplify my social anxiety. What I did not realize is that my social anxiety was based on my own bias, paranoia, and insecurities which, was entirely different than what the reality of the situation actually was. Was everyone judging me that I met- probably not. Could I breathe in a crowded room- yes. Was that woman glaring at me- ehhh maybe. Hah! The point is– what is happening in our heads is usually entirely different then the situation itself.
Our mind chatter more often than not, is more negative and critical in nature. In social situations, our minds are oftentimes scanning our environment looking for perceived ‘threats’. We try to ‘mind read’ those around us and if we are not welcomed by others with open arms, we feel as if they don’t like us entirely. We feel that everyone is looking us up and down with a critical eye waiting for us to say or do something that they can judge. How can we overcome these irrational thoughts that cause so much unnecessary anxiety and dress that can more than likely ruin your entire night? I do have a few tips to help you learn how to cope and hopefully overcome social anxiety!
First, look at the situation from a logical, rational perspective.
Imagine a friend told you all the same fears and anxieties that you experience in social situations. What would you say to them? Dissecting the emotions and fears from the actual reality of the situation is a therapeutic process in itself and it helps you realize that perhaps your emotions and anxiety is getting the better of you!
Check your inner dialogue
Do you sabotage your social encounter before you leave the house? If we are getting ready for a social gathering and while we are getting ready we are already telling ourselves that we are going to be nervous, worrying about making small talk, fretting over if people will judge our outfit choice- you are already planting that seed of anxiety in the back of your mind. Get rid of that negative self talk and flip the switch entirely. This helps me personally and I do this every time I am getting ready for a social event. I literally look in the mirror and tell myself how confident I am, how stress free I am, and how much I don’t give a F what anybody thinks of me which takes the fear of judgement off the table entirely.
When your mind starts to chatter- shut it the F up!
That same inner dialogue that you need to change can also cause problems when the social event is taking place. Mind chatter describes the feeling that you get when your mind starts to race, race, race! Thoughts are going a million miles an hour which is a breeding ground for anxiety. Slow those thoughts down and learn to shut that mind chatter off. How do I do this? I literally take long breaths and focus on one thing at a time. Oh- I have to go talk to this person and this person and my boss is going to be there? Ok- one at a time. Stop anticipating the interactions and focus on one at a time. Also, focusing on your external environment gets you out of your head, too! Look at your surroundings, take in the event, look at people’s outfits- whatever the case may be- but by focusing on your external environment, you prevent the mind chatter.
If you are still having a really difficult time with social anxiety- go see a therapist or read a book on the topic!
Self-help books are an amazing way to understand yourself, your problems, and can give you the tools you need to overcome whatever it is you are going through. If a book isn’t your thing- I can’t recommend therapy enough. I have had trial and error with a few therapists, but finally found one who was exactly what I needed. He is objective, rational, and helps me look at my situation/emotions/anxiety/depression with a rational scope. Once I learned how to separate my emotions and bias from so much of my issues in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy, I was able to live a more freeing life. I can ask myself- ‘is this coming from Sam’s emotions/past/projections/bias *or* is this coming from the situation itself?’ More often than not, it is coming from my own issues rather than an outside source.
Practice makes perfect!
The reality is- the more often you put yourself in these situations, the less and less scarier it will be every single time. Going out of your comfort zone is the only way to grow. Say yes to girls’ nights, say yes to play dates, say yes to a fundraising event. The more you put yourself out there, the easier it is going to become! Take it from me– for the first several years of my marriage I had horrible social anxiety. However, as the years have gone on and the more events and gatherings I attend, it literally gets easier every single time. I am guilty of getting a drink or two at social gatherings because it does have a way of relaxing you- but as long as you are not getting wasted to take the edge off, I say why not!
At the end of the day, social anxiety isn’t something that magically happens overnight. It is usually a reflection of our level of self-consciousness which can be amplified when an embarrassing moment happens in a social situation. Something as little as saying the wrong thing and the group not receiving it well could force a person to clam up and develop a phobia of speaking in front of strangers. By uncovering the root source of the anxiety is the first step on your journey to healing and overcoming. Therapy is a very solid route to go if that is what you feel is right for you. Others can cope and help themselves work through the social anxiety by practicing mindfulness and continually putting themselves in situations where they are routinely confronting their fears. Practice makes perfect and if social anxiety is something that you struggle with, it is time to get to work!