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May 01, 2019

How to Deal with Social Anxiety

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

It is not unusual to feel nervous around strangers, or uneasiness in large groups of people. However, sometimes this nervousness can be downright panic-inducing and debilitating, causing you to avoid social situations, and miss out on opportunities and special moments. Social anxiety is painfully real, but there is a solution!

What is social anxiety? As I discuss in this week’s podcast, it is generally characterized by chaotic, fearful and toxic thoughts in the presence of people or in groups. It is often associated with hypersensitivity, where someone makes assumptions about what people are thinking or saying about them and reacts to these assumptions, putting their brain and body into toxic stress. It is also a result of overthinking (I recently wrote a blog and did a podcast on this) and feelings of self-doubt—if someone is not confident in who they are as a person and are desperate to be accepted, they generally feel nervous during social gatherings. 

Social anxiety puts the brain into a state of “I need to avoid the danger ahead!” This is a biological need to protect the self, and can activate existing structural patterns in the brain associated with previous social situations. Say, for instance, you were so uncomfortable that you avoided calling someone back so you wouldn’t have to go with them to a party.This action was built into your brain as a protein memory, and is reinforced when you try avoid another social gathering in the future because it will make you anxious. The more you think about and act on this memory, the stronger it becomes, exacerbating your feelings of social anxiety. 

Social anxiety can also stem from a lack of self-esteem and belonging. You may not feel like you are good enough to be a part of a group, or you may not feel worthy. This comes down to how you see yourself, your worth and identity. I discuss this in depth in my book The Perfect Youand you can listen to this podcast I did on how to identify and define your identity. 

In these kinds of situations, people suffering from social anxiety often avoid talking, hide, run away or drink/eat as an escape, which reinforces the feelings associated with their social anxiety. And the more this person thinks and acts in this way, the stronger the pattern of social anxiety becomes, and the harder it is to deal with. 

If social anxiety is something you suffer from, how can you deal with it?

1. Awareness is the key. If you feel nervous when you go into big crowds or when you go to a social event, admit that this is something you battle with and ask yourself why. Why are you feeling like this? What are you basing your worth and value on? What defines the way you value yourself as a person? What has happened in the past to make you feel like this? Observe your thought patterns, words and actions, and find the reason why you are so anxious. Ask yourself if these thoughts and assumptions are good or healthy, or toxic and demeaning. Self-regulation of your thoughts is vital to overcoming any mental health issue!

2. Organize your thinking. Write down your thoughts or talk to someone you trust about what you are going through. This can help you bring clarity to the situation, organizing your thinking and what triggers your social anxiety so you know what needs to change and how you can change. And, as I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed, reaching out to loved ones when you are in need is incredibly therapeutic and can help you feel confident enough to change by encouraging you and helping you discover your own sense of self-worth. Writing is also a great way to get more clarity and organize your thoughts. When you write, you activate the basal ganglia in your brain, along with a rush of dopamine and serotonin, which promotes cognitive fluency and flexibility in your thinking and helps you problem-solve.

3. Re-analyze your reactions. Re-read what you wrote and assess it. What are the triggers? What makes you feel anxious in a social situation? What is your go-to thinking pattern? What mental habits have you created? 

4. Take action. Think about how you can replace these toxic thoughts with good, healthy thoughts. How can you manage social triggers? Think of easy, doable action steps you can take to feel less anxious. For example, one of my action steps when I feel anxious in certain social situations is to put up boundaries and learn ways of changing the direction of a conversation so it does not turn into a private counseling session.  

You need to be intentional about doing these steps for 21-63 days to break down the old “social anxiety” habit and build new one, as this is the time it takes to build new neural networks in the brain. My new app Switch (coming soon!), which is on pre-sale for less 30% at https://theswitch.app/promo/, is a great tool for helping you through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of social anxiety, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit. 

It is also important to learn to acknowledge that everyone, including yourself, is human. Recognize that change will take time, and it is okay to fail sometimes. We all make mistakes, and we do occasionally hurt each other—this is part of life. Focus on how you can help and learn from others, learn from your own mistakes and practice being less anxious in social situations. Most importantly, learn to embrace who you are and accept that not everyone will like you, and that is perfectly okay, but always try see something good in every person and engage with that. And in any social situation, make it a habit to remind yourself that most people are more focused on themselves than you, and will not remember everything you did or said, or how you look.

If you would like to learn more about how to optimize your mental health and overcome toxic mental habits like social anxiety join me at my Mental Health Solutions summit this December in Dallas, TX! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here.

 

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