Online sessions now available.Kristian S Nibe - clinical psychologist and ISTDP practitioner.
How to overcome social anxiety – tips and strategies.
In order to overcome social anxiety, there are several things you can do and learn about that will both reduce your anxiety and help you overcome it. Several of these concepts I mentioned in the article Fear of public speaking, and in this article I will present even more. In no particular order, the most helpful concepts to work on regarding overcoming anxiety are:
Learning how to regulate the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Becoming aware of your own feelings.
Increase your level of consciousness regarding your own intentions.
Accepting all human character traits.
Accept your own decision making and discernment.
Challenge dysfunctional defense mechanisms.
Stepping out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to anxiety triggering situation.
Becoming conscious of your responsibility and priorities.
Focusing on developing quality relationships with other people.
Strive to live up to your purpose and full potential.
Learning how to regulate the physical symptoms of anxiety.
The first priority when anxiety is activating the body is to regulate the anxiety so that the body calms down and one manages to think clearly and act the way one wants to act. The symptoms of anxiety and their intensity may vary a lot from person to person depending on how the anxiety is channeled in the body and the intensity of underlying feelings.
In short, you regulate anxiety by 1) observing the body and not resisting the anxiety, and 2) controlling your breathing.
An anxiety regulating technique – observing the body and “asking for more anxiety”.
Anxiety is muscle tension that tries to cover up your feelings. When regulating anxiety, it’s important to focus on only the bodily activation and try to separate the body from the thoughts that are going on at the same time. The stream of thoughts that are going on simultaneously is often dominated by worries, rumination, worst-case scenarios, and pessimistic thinking. Often these thoughts become so intense that they dominate the focus of attention of the anxiety ridden person.
The trick to regulate anxiety is to focus only on the physical symptoms (i.e. increased heart rate, tightening of the stomach, pressure in the chest etc.) and not resist this activation, while simultaneously ignoring your thoughts. Observing the body, ignoring the thoughts, and asking for more of the symptoms felt in the body regulates the anxiety. As an example, if you feel tightening in the stomach you can direct your attention to it by observing this tightening and asking for more of it. By asking for more of the tension the body actually relaxes since you are no longer resisting the tension.
While observing the body, the stream of thoughts will try to distract you with constant worries and ruminations, so for a few minutes it takes a certain amount of self-discipline and effort while you continuously block out all thoughts and refocus on observing the body.
To summarize: 1) observe the body and ask for more of the anxiety symptoms you feel, 2) block out and ignore worries and ruminations and refocus attention back onto the body, 3) repeat for a few minutes until you feel that the body starts to calm down.
The importance of controlling your breathing.
There are many changes in the body during an anxiety attack. One of the most prevalent changes is that one starts to breath more rapidly and primarily breathes with the chest. If one breathes only with the chest and not with the stomach the body doesn’t get enough oxygen, which may result in sensations of hyperventilation. Such a hyperventilation changes the balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body and leads to further physical symptoms such as dizziness, choking sensations, increased pulse, muscle tension, and a reduced ability to think clearly. To learn how to reduce the anxiety by breathing calmly and controlled with the stomach helps significantly in regulating your body back to a relaxed state.
A relaxation and breathing technique that reduces anxiety.
* Sit comfortably with the back straight and the shoulders relaxed. Put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach so that you are aware the movements of the stomach and chest.
* Inhale slowly and deeply through the nose for five seconds. Use your stomach while inhaling and try to fill it up like a balloon as much as you can. Your hand on the stomach should move upwards, while your hand on the chest should not be moving.
* Hold your breath for two seconds while your stomach is filled with air.
* Exhale slowly through your mouth for six seconds and release as much air as possible. Empty your stomach completely for air so that it shrinks as much as possible while you’re exhaling. This time also it’s just the hand on your stomach that is supposed to be moving.
* Continue breathing in through your nose for five seconds, holding your breath for two seconds, and exhaling through your mouth for five seconds. Focus on keeping a calm and steady breathing pattern.
If you’re in a panic situation and feel like you can’t breathe, focus on only exhaling deeply. The body will as a reflex always make sure that you get enough air in to the body. During a panic attack many people stop exhaling and this causes the feeling of suffocation. The only thing you need to consciously do is to is to exhale slow and for a minimum of six seconds and then the body will automatically inhale on reflex.
In addition to breathing exercises, regular exercise, walking, stretching, relaxation techniques, meditation, and yoga, are good ways to reduce anxiety and tension.
Become aware of your feelings.
Anxiety is caused by unconscious feelings that have been triggered in the body. Many find this a concept that is difficult to really understand. If you start paying attention to the onset of your anxiety you will notice that it gets activated by itself. This is because the body unconsciously activates anxiety whether you want it to or not. This proves that forces outside your control triggers unconscious muscle tension. This anxiety mechanism occurs because a part of the central nervous system reacts with a fear response towards its own feelings.
Anxiety is not a feeling, but muscle tension that covers up our feelings (i.e. anger, happiness, sadness, guilt, disgust, attraction, love). So even though one “feels” the anxiety, a central task in overcoming it is to get in touch with what kinds of feelings that are present that one is not aware of in that moment. That task requires openness to explore every feeling the unconscious might have triggered, even the ones that we deem politically incorrect or ethically wrong. If you are willing to take the role of a detective to try to understand what might have been triggered inside you given the situation you’re in and what is going on in your relationship you are one step closer to overcoming the anxiety.
Our feelings are something that we share with every mammal on the planet, and sometimes our feelings can be more animal-like than what we have been raised to acknowledge. The intensity of the feelings may also be much stronger than we allow ourselves to accept. It is possible to accept these animal like or “dark sides” of us without taking them personally and consequently think that there is something wrong or amoral about us since we are having such feelings. Not taking every feeling as something personal, but rather as something that the mammal inside us is experiencing, makes it easier to accept every feeling that arises without having the need to push them away or suppress them.
Becoming conscious of your intentions.
What is your intention in the social setting when you feel anxiety? Often times people just want to be liked, or they want others to think they are interesting, attractive, competent, kind, and confident. When we want a thing that we can’t for certain have, such as other peoples approval, it triggers frustration in the body. When you want a specific response from others (i.e. that others will think of you as an interesting person) you have created conditions that must happen in order for you to be content. When you have made yourself dependent on a given external outcome in a social setting you have given away our own ability to have inner calm and contentment since you set yourself up to be at the mercy of others opinions, actions, and character. This creates tension in your body.
When your intention is externally focused anxiety is close at hand, since we trigger frustration and project onto others that they are critical of us, a projection that in turn trigger feelings towards these critical people.
Try to let go of needing to have a given result or outcome in a social situation and let people be how they are. It is also other peoples responsibility to show interest, be compassionate, be friendly, and having a desire to relate in a social exchange. It is not just a one-way street where you have to do all the work.
Focus on your own truth, your own standards, and your own principles in social settings rather than focus on trying to achieve a desired response from others. When you are more centered in yourself in this way you will notice that you don’t trigger as much anxiety and frustration that you used to.
Try to understand others rather than trying to be understood, and try to be a likable person rather than trying to be liked. Let go of the need to be liked by others, and express your own truth instead.
Accept all human character traits.
You can reduce your anxiety by becoming more accepting of your feelings, character traits, and decisions. The importance of accepting all feelings were discussed above.
Among human character traits are traits that are assumed positive and desirable, such as; kind, honest, and compassionate. In addition, we also have character traits that are assumed negative or less desirable; such as stingy, stubborn, dishonest, and egotistical. Since we are human beings and not machines there are from time to time occasions where we display less desirable character traits, either in behavior, expression, or thought.
Sometimes it might happen that we are a bit greedy, dishonest, or egotistical. To accept that these character traits sometimes may apply to oneself makes one less defensive in social situations. That you in a greedy moment took the last piece of pie doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a greedy person. Your acceptance of less desirable character traits gives you more flexibility and calmness in social situations since your intense focus on how you are perceived by others no longer is the ultimate goal.
Accept your own decision making and discernment.
Many people with social anxiety continuously berate themselves for things they have said or done in social settings. By reminding yourself that every decision seemed like a good idea at the time they were made, you ease up on the harsh self-criticism that is always on the lookout for “mistakes” you made.
Self-criticism such as: “Why did I say that?!” seizes to a great extent to exist when you remind yourself that a thing was done or said because at the time that it happened it seemed like a good idea. That no one laughed at the joke you told doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a bad idea to tell the joke. For all you know the other guests simply lack your sense of humor. It is not constructive to berate yourself for past decisions and actions if the intention behind them were good-natured. Such self-criticism only leads to more uncertainty and a greater level of self-consciousness which only increases your anxiety in social settings.
Challenging dysfunctional defense mechanisms.
People with social anxiety spend a good amount of time worrying in advance how a social setting is going to unfold. If this is a tendency you have it is worth reminding yourself that you can’t predict the future. To work on letting go of the need to have a social situation go a certain way (i.e. that others will like you/give you their approval etc.) also reduces social anxiety to a great extent.
A worry is called a defense mechanism because it keeps you busy in your head trying to predict the future and therefore it defends you against your own feelings in your body. Some of the most common worries are:
* “I know I’m going to look like a fool.”
* What if people think I’m stupid?”
* “I’m going to get humiliated.”
* I’m going to freak out and be the laughing stock of the company.”
The focus of these worries is that they place more importance to what other peoples perceptions and opinions are, rather than focus of having a good time or expressing yourself.
People with social anxiety can therefore be said to be overly self-obsessed and self-conscious. The focus is continuously on how one is perceived by others, if one is liked by others, and if one is going to lose face or be humiliated in public. It is possible to let go of this self-obsessed focus. There’s really no reason for you to think about yourself all the time. Let it go. You’re already perfectly ok.
Common defense mechanisms.
Other common dysfunctional defense mechanisms that people with social anxiety often display are:
* Passivity or overcompensation – either one withdraws and checks out of the social situation, or one becomes too intense and clown-like.
* Projection – one attributes character traits to other people before knowing them, thereby prejudging people negatively.
* Ignoring own feelings and will power – thereby acting too pleasing and servile, this is often rationalized because one doesn’t want to express oneself so as to “avoid conflict”.
* Taking responsibility for other peoples feelings or actions – by thinking that it is oneself that is at fault when other people act out or behave inappropriately.
There are a great number of defense mechanisms people have and to present them all would be too extensive in this article. The main point is that it is very beneficial to become aware of your defense mechanisms so that you can turn against them and move towards more constructive modes of thoughts and actions. This process becomes much easier to do with the help of a skilled psychotherapist.
Underlying assumptions upholding social anxiety.
There are several types of assumptions and ways of thinking that are less constructive in social situations and contribute to maintaining social anxiety. Ask yourself if you are in the habit of relying on any of these thinking patterns:
* Mind reading – you assume to know what other people believe and think at any given time. It would be advantageous if you could admit to yourself that you can’t read peoples thoughts, and that what you assume that others are thinking about you is actually what you think of yourself.
* Predicting the future – is when you assume what is going to happen in the future. This is usually accompanied by predicting only worst-case scenarios that everything will go wrong. This only results in you building up anxiety before you’re in the situation.
* Cultivating catastrophe – means to assume consequences that are completely out of proportions. For example; if you believe that if others see that you are nervous all you can think about is how it’s going to be terrible, devastating, or worse than death.
* Personalizing – means to assume that others are only focusing on negative aspects of you, or that others actions have something to do with who you are. A thought such as: “I was walking past three colleagues in the hall that were laughing, and I bet they were laughing at me.”, illustrates this tendency.
Especially this last point about personalizing is common in social anxiety. To reduce this self-obsession, a productive exercise is to only focus on things that you can actually observe in the environment, rather than focusing on yourself or trying to interpret the meaning of other peoples actions. What is your actual observations and what are mind readings, interpretations, or predictions?
Imagine that you are observing a colleague sitting leaned back with his arms crossed and his eyes closed. Does this mean that he is bored and find you uninteresting? Not necessarily. Maybe he didn’t sleep the night before and is very tired. Maybe he is paying extra attention and don’t want to be distracted. Maybe he is rendered speechless by your presentation and must close his eyes to regulate his feelings. The point is, you can’t by observing someone draw conclusions with absolute certainty as to other peoples intention and feelings. Separate between your observations and your interpretations, and get into the habit of detecting yourself when you are interpreting based on limited observations. Since people will think of and interpret you the way they want to interpret you, it is a good thing to let your interpretations go and focus your energy towards other things.
This also applies in conversations and interactions with other people. Listen to what people are telling you and not to your own thoughts. Let go of planning in advance what you want to say, but trust your spontaneity instead. It’s not your sole responsibility to keep a conversation going. Silence is ok, and also a natural part of the dynamic in a conversation. Take the time you need to articulate and express yourself. There is no rush to make comments, ask questions, or tell your opinion.
Step out of your comfort zone and expose yourself to anxiety triggering situations.
In order to overcome anxiety you need to face it and challenge it rather than avoiding situations that you worry about occurring. It is the avoidance that maintains your suffering, since avoidance is done in order to avoid something that is “dangerous” about the social setting.
Anxiety only means that some feelings inside you have been triggered, it doesn’t mean that you’re in danger. The avoidance tactic prevents you from allowing yourself to be your authentic you. The more you avoid a feared social situation, the more you begin to fear it.
Even though it at present moment may seem impossible to overcome your anxiety, you can do it by taking one step at a time. Start by working on a social setting that you can manage without too much discomfort and gradually try to master more challenging situations.
It’s never a good idea to go too fast forward, but still it’s a good idea to stay just outside your comfort zone for optimal learning. Work on being conscious of your intentions, feelings, and defense mechanisms, and learn how to regulate the anxiety in any given setting. Be patient and remind yourself that overcoming social anxiety takes time, discipline, and practice.
Build quality relationships.
To actively seek and participate in constructive and supportive social environments helps with social anxiety. Seek relationships with people that gives you energy and that inspire you to learn new things. Get involved in activities you like to do, not just because you have to, but because it gives you pleasure and meaning. When you do something meaningful you enter a state where you become enthusiastic and lively, and this spark of life affects your relationships positively.
Quality relationships depend on clear communication, and you can develop both your emotional intelligence and communication skills if you are motivated to do so.
Be conscious of your responsibilities and priorities.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the day only has 24 hours. No matter how much you would like it to have more doesn’t change the fact that you only have this set amount of time at your disposal every day.
To be conscious of how you want to prioritize the day in order to obtain a balance in your life between work, family, and other activities is an important part of living a responsible and fulfilling life.
Being conscious of how much time you want to dedicate to sleep, work, family, children, friends, hobbies, relaxation, and meals etc. makes you more determined and able to set boundaries towards others that want you to prioritize your time differently.
To own your own priorities makes you more comfortable in social settings since you no longer regard yourself as a victim that is not in control of your own life. Rather, by consciously prioritize your time you view yourself as the deciding force in your own life.
Dedicate yourself to live close to your fullest potential.
When you know that you have done your best, you don’t doubt your own discernment and opinions like you used to. Self-doubt often comes when you know that you have not been at your best level.
If you know your subject matter and have prepared well in advance, then it’s not that interesting what other peoples opinions of your presentation are, because you yourself is the best judge of the quality of your presentation. Your own standards and knowledge let you know with certainty what was good and what aspects that could be improved. You then aren’t as frantic in trying to get other peoples approval and acceptance, since you don’t need it to feel sure about yourself.
Online consultations available.
Use the contact form below for any inquiries. Please state briefly the nature of your problem, when and how you are available, and how you prefer to conduct payment (Credit Card or PayPal).
Consultations are available for either 45 minutes or 90 minutes, and are conducted by video either through Skype or appear.in. Alternatively I also offer sessions through chat/e-mail.
The price per 45 minute consultation is 160 Euro. The price for a 90 minute consultation is 300 Euro.