How I Got Over My Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is such a bitch. I have far too many memories of turning down invites to avoid my anxiety. And the temporary relief was always followed by a flood of loneliness.
I can remember when my best friend and I both got to know this girl in high school. New Girl called me one night to invite me to a big Passover Seder with her family (neither of us is Jewish, so why she was in a position to invite me to Passover is one of the great mysteries of my adolescence). I immediately turned her down. Hard pass. I loved that she was interested enough in my friendship to invite me but I didn’t even consider going. After hanging up the phone, she promptly invited my best friend who happily accepted. For the next year, the two of them developed a friendship I was never again invited to join. The satisfaction I felt by avoiding my anxiety was rewarded with a year of sadness and jealousy.
The anxiety continued into college, too. That was more parties missed and friendships stunted. I just didn’t know how to handle it. I was firmly into adulthood (and a graduate student in clinical psychology) before it got better. So here are the things it took me decades to figure out. Hopefully it doesn’t take you that long :)
1. The discomfort in your body doesn’t have to stop you from saying “yes”
If you have no idea what I’m referring to when I discuss the physical discomfort of anxiety, CONGRATULATIONS! You probably aren’t an anxious person! But anyone who is will immediately understand anxiety = tightness in chest, pain in your stomach or throat, difficulty breathing, and rapid heart rate. At my highest moments of anxiety, I can literally hear the sound of my heartbeat in my ears.
These are the same physical reactions we experience when we’re in danger. If you get attacked by a bear, you sure as hell can count on the above symptoms occurring. Which makes sense! Because if you get attacked by a bear, your body has to prepare itself to run away. So in the case of bear attacks, you actually want your body to get anxious. Here’s the problem with social anxiety though: there is no bear! You’re only running away from a good time. If your body reacts the same way to a Facebook invite as it does being in mortal danger, OF COURSE you’re going to turn down the invite. Avoidance is the natural response to anxiety. But being natural doesn’t mean it’s helpful. In this scenario, it’s not helpful to avoid social interactions simply because they trigger those particular physical sensations. So: you don’t haveto pay attention to it.
Even though it sucks, and it makes you feel like some unspeakable harm might befall you if you say yes, remind yourself that your brain is simply assessing danger where there is none. Say “yes.”
2. Start Small
If you’re not ready, you don’t have to jump into the most anxiety provoking situation possible. (We therapists refer to this as flooding, which is an incredibly effective and universally hated treatment technique). So if you’re ultimate fear is singing karaoke, don’t start there. But do tag along with friends, sit in the back, and watch. Once you’re comfortable sitting at the back of the karaoke bar, try moving to a table closer to the front. And then consider singing in a big group. You can work your way up from there. The point here is to help your brain recognize that you don’t have to fear social situations. Ask yourself which situations make you anxious, and then put yourself in a *slightly* anxiety producing scenario. Over time, you’ll take on bigger challenges and singing karaoke will no longer trigger a panic attack.
3. Use your anxiety as a guide
9 times out of 10, whatever sets off your anxiety is actually a great thing for you to do. Even though my anxiety is A LOT better than it used to be, it still pops up from time to time. I recently created a Facebook page for my practice, and I felt the all too familiar pangs of anxiety when I thought about asking my friends to ‘like’ my page. It completely triggered my “I’m going to fail, you’re not actually smart you’ve just been pretending this entire time, everyone will be annoyed you bothered them” anxiety.
I noticed how my mind actively tried to stop me from doing something awesome: sharing my practice and my blog with people who care about me. If I had listened to it, I would still have 0 Facebook followers. Instead, I ignored the awful feeling in my stomach and hit ‘send invite.’ Within an hour I had my first 50 followers. That pit in my stomach still really sucks when it pops up, but I choose to view it as a sign that I’m about to do something awesome.
What have you tried to conquer your social anxiety? Let me know in the comments!