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!