Katie Alexander, MA LPC
Imagine what it would be like to go through each and every day running through worst-case scenarios over and over again in your mind. Now imagine that fear being so intense and overwhelming that you begin avoiding any situation that may lead to one of those worst-case scenarios. This is what it’s like to live with anxiety – and when the feared situations involve the possibility of being negatively criticized or mocked by peers, we call it social anxiety.
“What if they don’t like me?”
“I am sure they will think I’m stupid”
“No one wants to hang out with me”
“What if I do poorly and everyone makes fun of me for it?”
These are all common thoughts for individuals dealing with social anxiety. This type of anxiety leads to crippling fear of interacting with others, despite our innate desire to connect in meaningful relationships. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states, “The defining feature of social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia, is intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” Social Anxiety tells us that we have been rejected even before we enter into a group. I am sure you can imagine how isolating this belief could be.
Anxiety tends to run through a cycle of events, usually beginning with a triggering situation, which initiates our feelings of anxiety. Check out this diagram for a better understanding of this cycle:
Since anxiety originates as our body’s protective mechanism (AKA: our danger warning) it makes sense that this warning goes through various physical and mental experiences to get our attention. These types of warning signals may include shakiness, shortness of breath, racing heart, tense muscles, restlessness, difficulty sleeping, nausea, sweating and dizziness. Every single one of these warning signals stems from your body preparing for a worst-case scenario. Combine these physical sensations with constantly thinking of every bad thing that may have a chance of occurring – you’ve got yourself a pretty uncomfortable experience to say the least.
Now, we as human beings strongly dislike being uncomfortable and, therefore, tend to avoid situations that lead to being uncomfortable. With anxiety being both a physical experience and a cognitive experience – it only makes sense that our first reaction is to attempt to minimize these sensations and thoughts. Sometimes this first reaction is to avoid possible triggering situations completely, which generally will provide short-term relief from the discomfort. Sounds simple enough, right? Well…not quite. The problem with this is that our brains are incredibly smart and they have the ability to learn. This means that every single time we avoid a situation for fear of possible bad experiences, our brain learns that that situation is not safe. What does this mean? Well, it means that the next time that same situation, or just a similar situation, comes up, our brains remember the previous time we avoided it and will now send out our danger warning more intensely.
The cool thing about this, though, is that it works the other way as well. Every time we feel the discomfort of anxiety (say, during a class presentation or a job proposal in front of the boss) and we stay in that situation until the discomfort passes, our brain learns that it wasn’t as dangerous as it originally thought (we survived, after all) – therefore minimizing the danger warning for future situations.
So, as unbearable as social anxiety can be – the good news is that we can work together to understand it at a deeper level, identify ways of managing the discomfort in the moment when anxiety is at its worst, and most importantly, over time we will actually be changing the way your brain understands the world to effectively ease those warning signals from negatively impacting your daily life.
My challenge to you: The next time you feel anxious and think to leave the situation, instead, take a minute to pause and focus intently on your breathing. Notice what it feels like to breathe in - how your belly and chest expand. Notice the temperature of the air around you and the relief of the exhale. You could even track your heart rate if you have a Fitbit or Apple Watch. As you focus on your breath, you’ll notice your heart rate slowly decrease and return to normal.
Breathing Tip: Check out this article on Box Breathing. This technique has been proven to be effective at calming down those warning signals – even Navy Seals have been known to use it!
Katie Alexander, MA LPC
I am going to preface this with many people may dislike these words I am about to say…
Your life is only going to be what you make it. Every choice you make will impact how your day will turn out. You may choose to dwell on the negative thoughts you have OR you can choose to identify the truths buried underneath the surface. You can choose to focus on the pain, division and destruction OR you can acknowledge all that is good and kind and pleasant in this world.
Either way you have to spin it – your choices make a difference – for better or for worse.
I am reminded of this often times when I find those negative thoughts coming to mind. Practicing awareness for many years now, I find that I can catch them early enough to change direction. I know that I can choose to dwell in them enough to create truth there…or I can refocus my attention to every good thing I can think of off the top of my head. It’s amazing the weight that lifts as soon as I put pen to paper and can then physically see all of the amazing and beautiful things in my life.
When was the last time you wrote down all that you are thankful for?
Let’s go through a little exercise, shall we?
First – Grab a pen and a piece of paper, post it note, white board…literally anything you have that you can write on.
Second – Sit down a take the deepest breath you have taken all day. Begin to settle into this moment and allow yourself to simply be here.
Third – Think about 3 things, people, events, acts, behaviors, etc. that you are thankful for today. (Here are a few to get you started: the sun shining, speaking with a loved one, cooking and enjoying a delicious meal, laughing, seeing your child smile, the fact that you are alive and your body allows you to move and do the things you love to do)
Fourth – Take a second to close your eyes and notice how you feel in this moment. No judgment. Simply notice what arises.
This simple exercise takes only a few minutes to go through and can have an amazingly positive impact on your mood and overall well being. What do you think would happen if you intentionally acknowledged all that is good in your life on a daily basis? I challenge you to try it out – practice this every day for one week and see what happens to your perspective.
Katie Alexander, MA LPC
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”
I am sure you’ve heard this saying before many times. Perhaps you’ve also believed it for yourself or for others. So often I hear people say they feel “stuck” within themselves, their lives, their circumstances, etc. and they truly believe there is no escape from trudging through life in this way. This restrictive way of thinking also presents some other hardships such as lack of hope and believing one does not have the power to affect positive change in their life.
Regardless of if you do or do not fall into line with this way of thinking, I hope you stick with me here.
For a long time it was thought that what we had was what we got, and that there was no changing this matter. However, decades of research have proven the exact opposite and we now know that our brains have an amazing ability to change. Researchers use the term ‘Neuroplasticity’ to indicate that our brains (Neuro) are flexible (Plastic).
For the purpose of this post, and without using all of the scientific jargon, I am going to break it down so you can actually affect change today.
As a human being, we have the ability to make choices, right? And while there are hundreds of things that could happen to us on any given day that are outside of our control, we still get to choose how to respond to the uncontrollable. Every choice we make and every thought we think has an impact on how the brain functions. Basically, we have pathways in our brains and when we think a certain thought, such as “I am a bad person”, over and over again, this pathway in the brain gets bigger and stronger. Just like a highway, the bigger and stronger the pathway is, the more it will be used. The saying “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” really plays a big role here because if we are able to replace that way of thinking with something else such as, “I am a good person who sometimes does bad things”, then we are creating a new pathway in the brain that may lead to a healthier and more positive concept of self. Every time we make the choice to think either “I am a bad person” or “I am a good person who sometimes does bad things” we are quite literally taking control of changing how our brain functions, and with that, making an impact on the way we view ourselves.
Just as with anything, this power to change can be used for better or for worse. We can either continue thinking along the same patterns that we have been our entire lives – the same patterns of thinking that are now leaving you feeling stuck – or we can choose to replace these unhelpful thoughts with something new. Over time and with regular practice, those unhelpful thoughts will become weaker while the healthier thoughts will become stronger.
Which not-so-helpful thoughts have you been thinking lately? We all have them. Sometimes they have even been with us since we were kids.
If you have any interest in making positive changes in your life, I encourage you to explore this part of yourself and see what you notice.