.Over the course of the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way most of us—if not all of us—think about, and approach, social life. Through either deliberate choice or sheer happenstance, most of us have seen a reduction in the extent to which we socialize. That means that most of us—even the most outgoing and the most gregarious among us—have probably become a little rusty in the practice of socializing and communication skills. These are skills like any others, and, as is the general rule with skills, if you don’t use them, you lose them.
For a significant minority, however, discomfort in social situations goes beyond mere “rustiness” through disuse of social skills. For some, social situations evoke tremendous, debilitating fear or anxiety about possible scrutiny and negative judgment from others. Some of these individuals may suffer from social anxiety disorder.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a diagnosis of social anxiety disorder may be indicated when a qualified clinician determines that the following criteria are met:
- Marked fear or anxiety about one or more social situations in which the individual is exposed to possible scrutiny by others. Examples include social interactions (e.g., having a conversation, meeting unfamiliar people), being observed (e.g., eating or drinking), and performing in front of others (e.g., giving a speech).
- The individual fears that he or she will act in a way or show anxiety symptoms that will be negatively evaluated (i.e., will be humiliating or embarrassing; will lead to rejection or offend others).
- Social situations almost always provoke fear or anxiety.
- Social situations are avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.
- The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation and to the socio-cultural context.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.
- The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
Social anxiety disorder has been called a disorder of lost opportunities, and it is not difficult to see why. So many life opportunities and experiences are mediated through social life and social interactions. Those with a profound fear of social situations—from placing a phone call to attending a professional networking event—can miss out on numerous opportunities that they would otherwise embrace. For this reason, most people affected by social anxiety disorder are highly motivated to overcome their fears.
The good news is that help is available. Here are some tips for coping with social anxiety disorder.
The Oldest Trick in the Book for Coping with Social Anxiety?
You’ve heard it before—whether in your own life, on television, or in the movies. When confronted with the task of delivering a public speech or address of some kind, someone inevitably says, “Just imagine the audience naked.” After you’ve finished groaning and/or rolling your eyes (fair enough), I would invite you to consider that such advice actually contains an important truth that offers hope (and help) to those suffering from a social anxiety disorder.
Perhaps the folks over at The School of Life said it best: “We know ourselves from the inside, but others only from the outside. We’re constantly aware of all our anxieties, doubts, and idiocies from within. Yet all we know of others is what they happen to do and tell us, a far narrower, and more edited source of information. We often conclude that we must be at the more freakish and revolting end of humanity. Far from it. We’re just failing to imagine that others are of course every bit as disturbed as we are.
Without knowing exactly what it is that troubles or wracks another outwardly very impressive person, we can be sure that it will be something…. And we can know this because vulnerabilities and compulsions cannot be curses that have just descended upon us uniquely, they are universal features of the human mental equipment.”
Remember that advice, “imagine the audience naked.” This is a reminder that underneath their clothes—in this case, a metaphor for the social roles and personae that they inhabit, and present to, the world—other people are recognizably and reassuringly human, complete with all the foibles, fallibilities, and vulnerabilities that come with it. There is great power in remembering that, despite the unobservability of others’ private worlds and experiences, they share a humanness in common with us.
Keep a Diary or Journal of Your Anxious Thoughts
It stands to reason that before you can challenge anxious thoughts, you have to be clear about what they are. Keeping a diary or journal of anxious or fearful thoughts can be helpful.
Whenever you are preparing to enter a fear-inducing or anxiety-provoking social or performance situation, take a moment to record the anxious thoughts that occur to you. “No matter what I do, they are going to think I’m stupid or incompetent.” “I’m only going to embarrass myself if I attend the job interview, so why bother?” “I don’t think I could recover if they saw me sweating while I was on stage.” After you have emerged from the situation, take a moment to record any anxious thoughts that occurred to you during the exposure.
The primary purpose of this exercise is to develop the habit of paying careful attention to your thinking. The more you are aware of anxious thoughts, the more you can counter them with more realistic thoughts, predictions, and interpretations. Simply seeing your anxious thoughts spelled out on paper could go a long way to help you recognize that your thoughts are simply your thoughts—they are not facts.
Create an Exposure Hierarchy, and Carry It Out
As you may have guessed by now, one of the most effective strategies for reducing social anxiety is incremental, repeated exposure to feared social or performance situations. Exposure is effective because it provides ample opportunities to put the validity of anxious thoughts to the test. By venturing into feared social or performance situations, again and again, you will find out whether your beliefs about them are true or false. Likelier than not, you will find out that many of your anxious thoughts, beliefs, and predictions prove to be false. But you will also learn to increase your resilience in situations when some of your fears are realized (like when someone actually does express a negative judgment of you).
To develop an exposure hierarchy (or fear ladder), simply create a list of social or performance situations that evoke fear or anxiety. Next, rank them in order of severity—from least anxiety-inducing at the bottom, to most anxiety-inducing at the top. Your completed exposure hierarchy is a roadmap that will allow you to begin testing the validity of your anxious thoughts, starting with easier situations and working your way up to more difficult ones.
Consider Counseling or Psychotherapy
Self-help alone may be enough to reduce social anxiety. If it isn’t, you may benefit from the additional structure and support that weekly counseling or therapy can provide. There are a number of effective treatments available for social anxiety disorder, including cognitive–behavior therapy (CBT).
Contact us today to schedule a 15-minute phone consultation or to book an appointment. The rich and rewarding social life you want is within your reach.
I strive to create a safe, comfortable, and supportive environment for individuals who are confronting issues related to adjustment, anxiety, depression, grief, stress, relationships, and trauma. I specialize in helping individuals who find themselves caught in repetitive patterns of less-than-effective coping and bewildering self-defeat. Call or message today to schedule your free phone consultation or arrange your first appointment.