What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is the fear of being negatively evaluated by others. Most often occurs when leaving one’s comfort zone, such as public speaking for some. Some triggers of this anxiety are caused by the fear of looking unintelligent or inadequate. And it varies from person to person as some people would be comfortable public speaking while others would fear calling a single customer service representative or using the restroom at school or work. One commonality is the exploration of the unfamiliar or stepping outside of one’s comfort zone.
What causes Social Anxiety?
Highly anxious individuals focus on their internal cues, their bodily responses such as elevated heart-rate or blushing, which by focusing on those cues intensifies their effects to highly discomforting levels. Like a tight chest and difficulty breathing. Then associated with that focus on these cues is the overestimated assumption that everyone has noticed their cues and are harshly judging them for it. Which even if they are, it isn’t to the extreme that is assumed.
Highly anxious people also have difficulty removing their focus from a social threat cue such as a disappointed face in your partner that when asked what is wrong and they say nothing is wrong and in fact there is nothing wrong but the anxiety from the threat of a disappointed partner leaving you makes it difficult to let the topic go. Or when giving a speech and there is one sour face in the crowd seemingly looking through you and fixating on that face derails your whole presentation. Because the difficulty is looking away from a threat and knowing you’ll be fine.
Understand This First
The Spotlight Effect
People simply don’t judge you as extremely as you think. They are too preoccupied thinking about themselves, is what one commonly referenced set of studies has found. Typically, you are cognitively trained that life is based on you because in your position, it is, so in an embarrassing situation you might assume its worse than it is because of the egocentric thought that your mishaps are as important to others as they may appear to be because they are happening to you. So the feeling may set in that they are judging you harshly, they are looking at you harshly, right now you are the center of the universe, its all about you in that moment, but because others are more interested in what happens to them, generally, and the inflated social importance of that embarrassing moment is greatly exaggerated by mistake. In the experiment, a college student was selected to wear a Barry Manilow shirt and wear the shirt in front of their peers. Only a quarter of his peers noticed the shirt, one in four, while the other three just did not notice. So even a public social faux pas has a low notice rate. And even less care that much.
Socially anxious people remember less about their surroundings
Because socially anxious people are often so focused on their internal cues and feeling like the spotlight is on them, they are not as aware of their environment because it is equivalent to holding up a mirror to themselves at all times staring in at themselves oblivious to what is actually going on around them.
What to do about your Social Anxiety
Tip 1: Focus on something else that isn’t what you’re feeling
Focusing on something outside of yourself, outside of your discomfort, helps lessen the anxiety and get out of your own head. Become more aware of your environment, get to know it, get to know the people, look beyond to the world outside of the immediate and safe. Do not focus on your body’s anxiety responses and they’ll be less powerful.
Tip 2: Focus on Neutral or Positive Cues
Look toward positive or neutral social cues when a negative cue emerges and grabs your focus, focusing on it keeps you in the cycle of it causing you anxiety and the anxiety keeps you focused on it as a threat, practice looking to a neutral or positive cue and keep practicing until its easy.
Tip 3: Record yourself stepping out of your comfort zone
Record yourself doing something publicly, have fun with it, get embarrassed and watch it over later and see if it is easy to see what other people see. How red were you, did you sweat? Does it look as bad as it might’ve felt at the time of recording? Assess yourself from the eye of a third person perspective
Tip 4: Be genuinely curious about other people
Get the spotlight off of yourself, seek social interaction and learn from others, observe others and your environment, get out of your own head. And when the spotlight is on you, such as when speaking to a group of people, turn it to how you will convey the information you are presenting rather than derail yourself by focusing on your internal cues and whether or not others are noticing them and observe their responses but don’t fixate on a threat cue either.
Tip 5: Get yourself into awkward situations
Inherently, social anxiety isn’t a bad thing. Step out of your comfort zone. It takes practice to overcome social anxiety which means going out and being social, not hunkered down in front of a computer twenty-four seven. Challenge yourself, test your limits. Repetition solidifies with anything and everything. Social anxiety is not the monster it is often perceived to be, it’s an opportunity for growth.
With that I wish you well on your journey of personal growth, dear Reader.
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