This is how one client described the problem of depression and social anxiety to me. She avoided her friends and then felt desperately lonely. Also, the more she avoided socialising, the harder it became when she had to meet people, so avoidance just made it worse.
We talked through her history and found that she had always been labelled as "shy" or an "introvert" but that most likely she had always suffered from social anxiety. Her problem had become worse since she had given up work to have her daughter and she had spent more and more time at home.
We made a hierarchy of the social situations that made her most anxious and worked through them weekly in hypnosis using a technique called Systematic Desensitisation. Between sessions, we set little tasks together that she felt able to achieve and slowly she started to break the cycle.
So, how can you start to overcome social anxiety?
What Do You Fear?
What is it you fear about social interaction? Do you avoid certain social activities, such as parties or dinner invitations? The Social Anxiety Institute state that people with social anxiety disorder usually experience significant emotional distress in the following situations:
Being introduced to other people
Being teased or criticised
Being the centre of attention
Being watched while doing something
Meeting people in authority ("important people")
Most social encounters, especially with strangers
Going around the room (or table) in a circle and having to say something
Interpersonal relationships, whether friendships or romantic
Write a Hierarchy
Imagine a particular social event that makes you feel anxious and start to write a list of every aspect that causes anxiety. Then rate the anxiety from 0 to 100 with 0 being completely relaxed and 100 being a complete panic attack and the worst fear you can imagine. Then sort those fears into a hierarchy, beginning with the worst at the top and the easiest at the bottom.
So, something many people with Social Anxiety Disorder dread is a party. This hierarchy of fears is a typical example based on some of the clients I have worked with.
Speaking to a group of strangers 85
Not knowing what to say or my mind going blank 80
Making conversation with someone 70
Eating or drinking in front of people 65
Being left alone with someone I don't know well 60
People looking at me 50
Walking into the party 50
Start at the bottom of your hierarchy and imagine yourself doing that without the usual anxiety. So, in this example, you would imagine walking confidently into the party. Stay relaxed and comfortable as you imagine doing that over and over again until you can think about it without feeling nervous at all.
When you have mastered that, move on to the next scenario. In this hierarchy, that would be the feeling of being looked at and perhaps feeling judged. In your mind, see those people looking at you as you saunter in with a confident smile. Imagine the positive things they might be thinking. Of course, the chances are that in real life they will be thinking nothing at all and probably won't notice you, but let's just go with it for the purpose of this exercise.
Repeat this for every step until you can imagine doing all those things whilst feeling calm, relaxed and confident. Keep practising this and you will feel more prepared to face the real situation when it occurs.
If a party seems like too much of a huge step, think of another scenario to work on first. Start small and work your way up slowly and gradually so that you build your confidence and begin to realise that you CAN do this. Then go out there and practise in real life. Compare your feared response on the hierarchy with the way you actually feel when you are in that situation. Rate the anxiety from 0 to 100. Very often we find that the imagined fear is far worse than the way we feel in the actual situation.
I know it seems so much easier to simply avoid social events all together and it is a common response to social anxiety. By turning down invitations or deciding not to attend at the last minute, we feel an initial sense of relief which is rewarding and comforting at the time. However, that then becomes more and more of a habit until we find ourselves in the position of my previously mentioned client. She lost friends and found fewer and fewer invitations offered. When she was invited out she had built up such an anxiety in her mind that she was finding it almost impossible to even leave the house. Therefore, avoidance just makes the problem worse long-term and, in her case, led to depression and a sense of loneliness.
Why Do I Have Social Anxiety?
People with Social Anxiety Disorder often have prefectionistic tendencies and overly worry about making themselves look foolish in front of others. Firstly, it is important to keep reminding yourself that very few people will notice if you make a mistake or do or say something that you consider silly or embarrassing. They will be far too concerned with themselves or even coping with their own anxiety. If they do notice, they will quickly forget. It isn't important to them so won't be something they ever think about again. So what if you panic and have a blank moment? Has anyone ever stopped half way through a conversation and admitted to you that they lost their thread or forgot what they were going to say? Did you hold it against them? I'll bet you barely remembered it after the conversation. People do it all the time.
You Probably Aren't The Most Anxious Person
The other thing to remember is that you are definitely not alone. There will be many other people there feeling anxious, too. I have discovered through my job that even the people who appear most confident often suffer with social anxiety. In fact, sometimes those who appear extremely confident and outgoing are the ones suffering the most inside. They have just learned to put on a front and hide their true feelings. The truth is, we never really know how someone else is feeling, so don't imagine that you are the most nervous person in the room. The chances are, you are not.
This realisation can help you to focus outwards and make the effort to ensure that those around you are feeling confident and comfortable. Pay them a compliment, ask them questions and focus all your attention on them rather than yourself. Just focusing outwards can really help to calm your own nerves.
Practise some relaxation techniques daily to keep your general levels of stress and anxiety under control. I talk to my clients about The Stress Bucket and how important it is to keep that bucket empty so that other worries and problems that crop up don't send the stress spilling over. Take a look at this blog post for some ideas on general relaxation techniques.
When you are in that anxiety-inducing situation, use simple relaxation techniques such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing or bi-lateral stimulation to calm your mind before the conversation starts. This will help you to calm down and clear your head so you can then shift your focus to what is going on outside your own body and mind, really listen to the other person and get into the flow of the conversation.
After the event, forget the usual post-mortem (you know you do it!) and congratulate yourself on taking a huge step forward. You will likely surprise yoursef and find that you had fun, enjoyed the company and met some lovely people.
If you would like some help to overcome social anxiety for good, please do get in touch. We can make a plan, set some goals and work through this together at your own pace. Some people find that these fears date back to childhood and are linked to early memories of feeling embarrassed or humiliated. If we find that is the case, we can do some inner-child work to remove those old feelings and free you to move forward. Every client is treated on an individual basis so there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any problem.