Reframing: As with other anxiety disorders, with social anxiety your brain is playing a trick on you. It’s telling you that you are in danger, but actually you are just feeling discomfort.
When you experience the “fight or flight” reaction, the physiological changes you are experiencing (sympathetic nervous system arousal, stress hormones released in the brain, an elevated heart rate, sweating) are actually your body trying to help prepare you to face a challenging situation. People often willingly create this “fight or flight” response in order to experience exhilaration and excitement – such riding a roller coaster, snowboarding, or white water rafting. The physiological response is identical. Reframing your anxiety as your body trying to help you respond – versus seeing it as evidence that you are actually in danger – can be helpful. Try out the mantra “It’s not danger, it’s just discomfort.”
Exposure: Exposure therapy is a powerful tool in overcoming most anxieties. It means exposing yourself to the situation that triggers the anxiety and then deliberately resisting the urge to engage in any “safety behaviors” that you would normally use to try to escape the anxiety. Safety behaviors are things like avoidance, distraction, drinking, avoiding eye contact, etc. It requires you to stay present and hang out with discomfort in order to give your brain a chance to learn something new. It helps your brain to learn that you can actually tolerate the anxiety itself rather than having to run from it. It also challenges negative beliefs and predictions about negative outcomes you may have about the situation.
Some people discount exposure therapy, reasoning that they’ve tried it themselves without success. What’s different about therapeutic exposure is (1) you start small and work your way up from moderate to more severe situations in a very structured way (2) it’s done frequently, three or more times a week and (3) it’s done mindfully, staying fully present during the exercise to help give your brain a chance to learn something new. Success is not measured in terms of not feeling the anxiety, but in learning that you can ride the wave of anxiety and still do what’s important to you.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): EMDR is a very powerful and rapid therapeutic tool. While it was originally developed to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), it is extremely useful in treating other conditions such as social anxiety. It can help to decrease the level of distress experienced and help defang underlying irrational beliefs and scary thoughts, giving new beliefs room to emerge. EMDR can also help to create new images or models of what a person is capable of or can do in the future.
Social Skills Training: Social skills training is a behavioral approach that helps students to learn and practice new skills and strengthen their social functioning, much like learning exercises and working out in the gym can improve physical fitness. Doing something different and experiencing different outcomes in a structured environment is a very powerful learning experience.
Toastmasters: Toastmasters is an international organization that focuses on public speaking. It is very affordable and has many clubs throughout the world. While it originated in 1922, long before exposure therapy and social skills training were developed, it offers an opportunity to learn new skills and practice them in a supportive environment much in keeping with the principles of these therapies.
While social anxiety is a very distressing and debilitating condition, you can get better. There are proven approaches and therapies that can help enormously. Whether you use a “self help” approach or get the help of from therapist or class, using these tools can help to transform your life for the better.