Many living with social anxiety disorder can list several opportunities they let slip away because of their anxiety. Maybe they passed up on a great job opportunity because they were worried about having a panic attack during the interview. Maybe they never go to social events because they’re worried about getting embarrassed and laughed at. It’s no wonder that many with social anxiety also suffer from clinical depression, given how much it can prevent people from having fun and socializing.
As someone who has struggled with social anxiety for much of my life, I’ve come to believe that it’s not necessarily social situations themselves which makes us anxious, but rather it can be a result of the thoughts we have about those situations. This idea is one of the central components of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been shown to be very successful in treating social anxiety. I’d like to discuss two strategies I developed with the help of CBT to counter my anxious thought patterns, which gives me some relief from my social anxiety. If you find yourself getting stuck in similar thought patterns, I’d encourage you to try out these strategies as well. (Of course, anyone who needs comprehensive treatment should see a therapist or counselor, as these are only tips from my experiences.)
Fighting the Story in My Head
“If I go to the party, I’m positive that nobody will want to talk to me.” “If I try talking to my classmate, they’ll find out that I’m stupid and uninteresting.” These are examples of stories we might tell ourselves when thinking about an upcoming social situation. In both examples, as in most situations that trigger our social anxiety, we assume that we’ll get embarrassed, and that is what makes us anxious. After all, many people go to parties and talk to their classmates without becoming very anxious, because they’re not overly concerned about being socially rejected. The situation (going to the party, talking to my classmate) isn’t causing our anxiety, our thoughts about the situation (nobody will want to talk to me, they’ll find out that I’m stupid…) are.
To counter this, I try to enter anxiety-provoking situations without having any preconceived notions about what I think will happen. I know that my anxious brain is going to be in overdrive trying to get me to believe the worst-case scenario, but I also know intellectually that I’m probably overestimating the chances I’ll be embarrassed or ridiculed. So, instead of going to a party thinking that nobody will want to talk to me, I simply tell myself that I don’t know what will happen at the party. Maybe I’ll talk to people and maybe I won’t. This attitude helps me go into social situations without allowing my anxiety to convince me that everything will definitely go wrong. I know that my expectations about what I think will happen are colored by my social anxiety, so I try as hard as I can to ignore them.
Not Mind Reading
When we’re anxious, we also tend to believe that everyone’s judging us negatively. For example, if we’re at a social event and nobody’s talking to us, we’ll assume that’s because everyone thinks we’re boring. Or if we’re not talking to anyone at the event, we’ll assume other people think it’s because we’re anxious. In other words, since we ourselves are so caught up in our anxiety and negative self-talk, we think that the other people around us also are. However, I’ve come to realize that this is very rarely true. In reality, most people are busy thinking about whatever’s on their own mind, not about how supposedly boring or anxious we are. Just because we feel anxious, doesn’t automatically mean that other people are going to detect it and judge us negatively because of it. Therefore, it’s much easier and actually much more realistic to not make anxiety-colored assumptions about what other people are thinking about us.
Ultimately, those of us with social anxiety have an underlying, irrational fear of being embarrassed and rejected, so it’s understandable that we get anxious. However, it’s important for us to realize that how we think can help or hinder our improvement. Not formulating stories in our head and not mind reading are two strategies that can help us stop overthinking and start forming healthier and more realistic views about socializing. Over time, making small changes in the way we think about ourselves will add up to real change that we can be proud of!
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