Social Anxiety - I Thought Everyone Felt This Way
Sure I may seem extroverted and at ease in a crowd.
But did you know I break into a sweat and have messed up digestion EVERY time I go to a group event?
Yes, this is as unpleasant as it sounds. And YES I'm committed to learning more about how to rewire my brain - so I can help both myself and all of the you's out there who relate to this. And I know there are many you's out there: 13-14% of Americans will develop a social anxiety disorder in their lifetime. The good news is that we CAN use our brains to overcome what at a minimum is an unpleasant experience and at a maximum what can truly be a paralyzing disorder. Anxiety, I'm on to you and this community is getting outfitted to be released from your clutches...
Let's rewind a few years... The first time I realized maybe I had social anxiety was at 25, describing how I feel entering a room of strangers to my good friend Libby. I shared how I dreaded the experience, would feel physically sick thinking about walking into the room, and that this was one of my absolute least favorite things to do, EVER.
And then she blew my mind - she said she had absolutely NONE of those experiences and frankly had a very POSITIVE association with walking into rooms full of strangers.
I had always assumed that no one liked meeting large groups of new people all at once (even typing that, it sounds ridiculous), and that my physical and mental symptoms were common across all human beings.
And in reality, it's not that I DON'T like meeting new people. In fact, I LOVE meeting new people! So what is it about being in large groups of strangers that is so utterly terrifying?
It took a great deal of self reflection to get to the core of my social anxiety.. In technical terms, what I experience is generalized social anxiety and is primarily anticipatory anxiety. This means that I experience the bulk of my symptoms in the lead up to being in a social environment. Once I'm there (and really, once I'm talking to someone), much of my anxiety diminishes. The "once I'm talking to someone" piece is important, because for me the fear is truly the question of "what will people think of me if I end up standing alone in this room?". So, once I find myself in a conversation or I've been given a role (even if that's making a speech to a large group) my anxiety largely diminishes - for me it's the "not having a role" or being "left out" that I've deduced to being the root cause... And most social anxiety is based on this fear of judgement, and the concern of "what will people think" in one form or another.
It's important to be aware that social anxiety hits people at different times... for some it only happens once they're in the room, or maybe when they're put on the spot to speak in front of a group. For others it could occur simply considering leaving their house for the day. If you find yourself in a conversation about this topic, speaking only from your perspective can create a safe space for others to share their unique experience of social anxiety.
My personal physical symptoms leading up to an event are generally upset stomach and digestion, lots of sweat, and sometimes a headache.
It ALWAYS sounds better to just stay home, and I would be lying if I said I hadn't made an excuse before to actually miss an event because my anxiety got the best of me.
However, like I shared earlier, I earnestly DO like to meet new people, and ultimately my personal and professional selves thrive when I put myself into social situations, so this level of anxiety cannot (and usually does not) keep me from doing what I fear most..
However, recently I decided that my will is not enough and that I am committed to eliminating as many of my social anxiety symptoms as possible. Because having a gut wrenching stomach ache 1+ times each week is the WORST and the mental wrestling match I endure to get myself to these events is, simply put, exhausting.
Alright, so what can be done?
The approach that has been most successful (based on research) is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This is a structured approach using cognitive methods, strategies, and concepts that will allow people's brains (i.e., their brain associations or neural pathways) to literally change. The brain is continually learning, and irrational thoughts and beliefs can change as a result of this cognitive process. This is good news!!!
To employ these strategies you can find a therapist who is trained in this approach and/or you can start by applying some DIY principles.
I highly recommend that you consider working with a professional, as this means you have a trained teammate who is committed to resolving or reducing your social anxiety.
I have also found personal benefits in some DIY approaches, so I wanted to share those here as well.
Because this work requires a little bit of time and self-reflection, please download this worksheet to go through the DIY process that has the best odds of retraining your brain away from the anxiety pathways. Yes, please!
In short what we will cover in this work is how to identify:
- My Triggers
- My Emotional & Physical Feeling
- Worst Case Thoughts
- Focal Point
- Coping Mechanisms
- Turn-around Mantras
- Second Glance (what happened)
It is not easy to reduce social anxiety, it's also not difficult. What is required is routine practice of changing your thought patterns. Of putting yourself into situations that cause anxiety again and again, not to torture yourself, but rather to develop more awareness, and most importantly, try new thought tools that will help your experience change over time.
You're welcome to use this exercise multiple times to deepen your awareness and continue to hone in on the why's, what's and how's.
And continue to reflect on the fact that our neural pathways have been proven to deepen over time with repetition. It IS possible to change your reactions, but only with CONSISTENT practice.
Let me know how this goes in the comments or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm committed to overcoming this, and helping you overcome this, too. We need every one of us powerful women to be out there in the world, sharing our light, power and wisdom. Cheer's to being on the journey together, one freaking group event at a time.