Tips for Combatting Social Anxiety

There are many forms of Anxiety, much like there are many forms of Depression. Anxiety presents in lots of different ways but is equally destructive in its own insidious ways. Much like depression taking hold, Anxiety works the same way. Social Anxiety is something a lot of people experience in their lives, from just general nerves to a real life impacting problem.

Physical symptoms such as a serotonin imbalance may contribute to Social Anxiety. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that helps regulate mood. An overactive amygdala (a structure in the brain that controls fear response and feelings or thoughts of anxiety) may also cause these disorders. Having an "overactive amygdala" means that area of the brain is firing off energy at a much more intense level than someone who doesn't experience Social Anxiety. The brain is in a constant state of "fight or flight" and whilst this is a useful tool and extremely primal when that state doesn't dissipate there is no relief and the torment is excruciating.

The fear of being the centre of attention, being evaluated negatively or showing physical signs of anxiety in social situations. This usually leads to avoidance of certain situations, such as social gatherings and job interviews, or eating, speaking, and writing in front of others.

The key feature of social anxiety is the fear of being scrutinised and being evaluated negatively by other people. A person who suffers from this condition worries that they may do something embarrassing, or act in a way that may be humiliating (which includes showing signs of anxiety). The fear may be circumscribed to particular situations (e.g., public speaking) or may be generalized to most social situations.

The symptoms present like this;

* Blushing

* Shaking or trembling

* Increased heart rate

* Sweating

* Mind going blank

* Shaky or soft voice

* Problems concentrating

* Urge to use the toilet

* Increased breathing rate

* Dizziness

* Nausea or vomiting

* Urge to escape

The treatment of choice for Social Anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the most effective element is called Exposure Therapy. This works on the principle that if you expose yourself to controlled situations that would normally elicit an anxious response, then the brain essentially starts to rewire and your annoyingly loud amygdala starts to see the situation as less threatening.

Here are some tips through CBT that help combat Social Anxiety;

1. Knowledge is Power - Get to "know" your anxiety, learn more about it and educate yourself on what it is and why it happens. Taking control of your own Mental Health is the first and most important step to recovery.

2. "What If's?" - Understand that you are subconsciously predicting the outcome before it has happened. And usually, it is the worst case scenario. Challenge that behaviour as much as possible and as regularly as you can. I personally make lists of the thought process and then an opposing challenge to that thought.

3. Training in strategies, such as mindfulness, to manage anxiety symptoms, and encouragement in practising these techniques regularly. If you do this while you are NOT in an anxious state, it becomes easier to implement the process when you are in a more anxious situation.

4. Exposure Therapy - This is probably one of the most important and effective. I have used this all the time and it helps me immensely. Let's say you have a fear of going to dinner on your own because you "think" that everyone will be looking and judging. Exposure Therapy works by putting yourself in situations and then evaluating the actual outcome. So instead of going to a crowded restaurant, start with a quiet cafe with one or two other customers inside. Gradually build this concept up to include the triggers that are specific to your anxiety. Always remember "what is the worst that could happen? I feel weird and decide to leave". At least you have tried and it will only get easier.

5. Shifting attention - Once a person has identified and challenged their maladaptive thoughts, they should be encouraged to focus on the present, and to think realistically about the present situation rather than feared future outcomes. Mindfulness-based interventions can also help individuals practice remaining present-focused.

One extremely important aspect of recovery and moving forward is to let go of what is called "safety behaviours". These can include taking a friend to the shops with you every time, or avoiding other peoples’ eyes, sitting alone in a corner, mumbling or speaking very softly, and pre-planning all social encounters. People with social phobia often rely on these safety behaviours and believe that they cannot cope without them.

Calming down - Your breathing rate increases automatically as part of the fight or flight response. Learning to slow down your breathing rate when you are anxious can settle some of the other anxious sensations, as well as help you to focus your mind. Mindfulness can be practised anywhere and taking a few long deep breathes automatically calms the nervous system.

One fun thing I do is look at what people are wearing and sometimes make jokes in my head. This distraction again causes the brain to calm the nervous system.

Let me give you a real-life example of exposure therapy with a bit of a comedic twist to lighten things up. I was invited to a party with what I jokingly called the A-Class Gays. I only knew the host and one other person and had already been had a raging battle in my head about whether to go. Given I was in therapy I thought it would be a good time to practice. I mean what really is the worst thing? I hate it and come home!

So I got myself all ready and off I went with the other person I knew. The minute we got there, he totally abandoned me, so I was left floating around on my own. I went to the bathroom to gather my thoughts, I knew I couldn't just follow the host around all night so I had to just get out there and see what happened. Well, the best way I can describe it was like being at "The Mean Girls" party. I tried so many times to pop into groups and say hello and it just didn't feel right. So I retreated to another balcony to sit decide what to do. Somehow, a drunk idiot locked the door and suddenly I found myself locked on a balcony with my only option being to yell out for help.

Cut to 45 mins later and I eventually was released from the balcony with the entire parties attention now focused directly on me. Of course, I immediately called an Uber and got out of there.

Now on the outset, the outing was a complete failure, I really didn't have any fun and I felt like there was this giant light shining on me telling people to steer clear. However, when I got home and thought more about it, I was GLAD I went. It was one step closer to putting myself out there and while the worst thing that could happen kind of did, I was ok and safe, the world didn't come crashing down.

So the next Mean Girls party came and I went again and this time had a genuinely good time. I still practice all the time, if a negative thought process starts to grow momentum, I try very hard to slow it down and then challenge whether that thought process is realistic or not.

Like any Mental Health challenge, Social Anxiety is prevalent in our community and can often start at a young age. But there is definitely hope to overcome those fears and begin to enjoy social occasions rather than shy away from them.

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