Understanding and Managing Social Anxiety

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Anxiety is described as one’s anticipation of a threat real or imaginary.

The Diagnostic Statistical Manual 5 (DSM 5), (a clinician’s bible) lists a number of anxiety disorders. The prevalence rates between genders for many are listed as equal or higher among females. Social anxiety disorder is no exception.

Yet, an interesting fact about social anxiety disorder is that during research in clinical trials more males appeared to have social anxiety versus females.

The highest area of social anxiety for males is interacting with individuals they are attracted to.

Why the discrepancy? One reason for this could be that men are less likely to use medical services such as a mental health therapist. Mostly likely because of the associated stigma of mental health therapy. It could be that experiencing social anxiety is normalized in our culture of men.

Of course, what is normal and who defines normal. Well, that is a different discussion.

Let’s discuss social anxiety: what it is, how it affects us, and how to help manage it.

By no means am I saying that all men have a social anxiety disorder. Many of my male clients have experienced high anxiety in social situations. I know that I have issues with being anxious when approaching new people, woman that I am interested in, and some other social situations.

Remember only a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist can diagnosis you with a mental health disorder. If you think you may have social anxiety disorder please consult a licensed mental health therapist.

First, I want to talk about social anxiety. Social anxiety is a fear. A fear that one may act in a way that will be negatively evaluated by others. Generally there is little evidence to back such a fear, but it feels very real.

A fear that we will say something stupid. That we will embarrass ourselves when we meet new people. That maybe we will laugh at the wrong moments. That we may not come off as great as we would like. That we will fail in some way around others.

Basically a fear of what others will think about us. Possibly even a fear of how they might verbally let us know how we messed up. This fear could be imaginary or real. Most of the time our minds convince us that if we think it, then it is real.

For me personally, what created my greatest social anxiety is like a double edged sword.

On one side I feared disappointing those that had the potential to or did invest in me. Their investment could have been through money, time, energy, or/and pride. It could have even been as little as taking the time to have a conversation with me and me not keeping them interested or entertained. There goes my mind again telling me that what I think is going to happen.

The other side was that I feared being disappointed by people I either was or could be invested in. This fear gave me the advantage to put up a guard around others. It afforded me the ability to cut people out before they become too invested.

The disadvantage was that I missed out on making and keeping potential great relationships with others because I was governed by my anxiety, my fear.

This leads me to the next aspect of social anxiety. The way it affects those who experience it.

Social anxiety can affect us in our everyday life.

It drives our fear of meeting new people. It drives the fear of being in new social situations.

It can cause us to withdraw and avoid things in our life. It can deprive us from experiencing life to its full extent. It makes it challenging to be in particular social situations. Challenging to enjoy new experiences.

Our bodies experience an array of sensations when anxiety is on the rise. We may experience a rise in body temperature. We may experience a warm flushing sensation through our neck and face. A tightening of our muscles. Our adrenaline may begin to pump preparing for our fight or flight response.

When experiencing these sensations it becomes uncomfortable. Generally the one desire is to make it stop. Our mind might tell us that to make it stop we must avoid it.

We may choose not to speak up with our thoughts or opinions because of what others may think. We may choose to not approach that person of interest because others may see us.

For me personally, I am more of an avoider and withdrawer. If there is a chance that someone might be disappointed with me I will withdrawal from that person because of the anxiety it will create to face the person.

If I might be disappointed by someone I would rather avoid them. Even if they are a close friend, I will still work to avoid them or withdraw from them.

As you can guess this created a lot of awkward situations and lost friendships.

Lastly, managing one’s social anxiety.

Many that have social anxiety try to manage it through the use of alcohol or other drugs. Alcohol I believe is the go to when trying to manage social anxiety. I have heard it called, “liquid courage.”

Alcohol inhibits the part of our brain that stops us from doing things that we have deemed as potential threats or real threats. As we drink we become less anxious about our situation, but it is truly just masking our real anxiety. After the effects wear off, the anxiety is still there.

The best psychology that I have found to help with social anxiety is cognitive behaviorally therapy (CBT). CBT works to help change the self-limiting belief’s surrounding the social situations that cause the greatest anxiety. It also has very helpful tools that one can use to help manage the anxiety.

These exercises are not about how to control or remove anxiety. Small amounts of anxiety are expected. It is when anxiety is affecting your everyday life that causes an issue.

Here are a few things to help you:

Note: some may seem challenging, but that is the point of the exercises.

  • Exposure. This one is an effective exercise. It goes with the idea that to overcome your fears you must face your fears. Starting small is always best for exposure. Map out a plan of attack. A plan that stretches you beyond your comfort zone. Included in this plan is what you will do, how you will do, how often you plan to do it. Implement that plan for a certain amount of time. After that time is up, change the plan thus stretching your comfort zone. Growth occurs at its highest during challenging times.

I also advise that you connect with a person that you trust that can help hold you accountable. Check in with that person weekly for support, encouragement, and guidance.

The more you exposure yourself to social situations that cause you anxiety the easier it will be to handle them. Think of when you first started swimming. For many of us we were not natural swimmers. The water looked scary and uncertain, yet as we learned the movements of swimming. Through exposure to the water we saw that we could swim and stay afloat. We faced the uncertainty of the water and can now swim.

This example coincides with the idea of putting ourselves out there to experience the anxiety and see that the uncertainty of the social situation is not all that threatening.

  • There are many forms of relaxation. The two that are most discussed are progressive and passive muscle relaxation. These are both forms of relaxation that you can do from the comfort of your own home.

Progressive muscle relaxation involves one tensing a muscle group (your neck and shoulders), then release the tension allowing your muscles to relax. Notice how it feels to tense the muscles and relax the muscles. Do this for each muscle group starting with your feet and working you way up.

Passive muscle relaxation (my go to) involves a focus on a body part (your toes). Allow them to relax. Focus on relaxing them. Move to your feet. Allow them to relax. Focus on relaxing them. Then you move up from there until you reach the top of your head. I enjoy this one because he really brings me to a calm center allowing me to approach the day or end the day peacefully.

You can search these online to find guided exercises that will help.

  • Meditation is a wonderful way to start or end your day. It requires you to become mindful and present in your body and your thoughts. It also provides your body with good quantities of oxygen that help to calm your anxiety.

A general meditation is to begin by sitting in a chair (feet flat) or on the floor. Back straight, breath in through your nose counting to 5, feel the air pass through your nose into your lungs. Feel your chest rise. Hold for 5 seconds. Slowly release through your mouth. Feel the air pass over your lips. Empty your lungs, feeling your chest fall. Do this about 4 more times.

Bring your focus on your thoughts. Think of them as clouds in the sky. Wipe them away as if they are on a chalk board. Watch them dissolve. As a new thought comes in, do not judge it or be upset that your mind is not clear. Allow it to come and wipe it away.

Continue this for about 5 to 10 minutes. Focus on your breathing, allow your thoughts to dissolve within your mind.

Incorporating one or more of these techniques into your life will allow you to begin to manage your anxiety. If I am in a situation that is creating high anxiety I rely on my breathing techniques from meditation to help me along with the muscle relations techniques.

I hope this helps you to understand what social anxiety is, how it might affect one’s everyday life, and ways to help manage the anxiety.

 

 

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