Social anxiety refers to the fear of being around people due to the threat of embarrassment.
People who are socially anxious frequently freeze and are unable to seek the very company their hearts desire. They may make adaptations: they may decide that they “hate” being around people; they may isolate and play video games; they may absorb themselves in their work, but no matter what they do, this anxiety always exists at baseline whether they are being social or not.
The issue with social anxiety, as with most forms of anxiety, is that the anxieties and fears are not just conscious. “Dealing” with them through avoidance may get rid of the conscious fears but the unconscious fears still wreak havoc on the human brain. Beneath the surface, the brain is still “running the circuit” of fear, except that you cannot hear or feel it. This circuit is still disrupting your thinking, and in fact, may be more destructive than conscious fears. To truly deal with social anxiety, we have to ask questions beyond the surface: not just, why are you afraid of social situations, but what are your fundamental assumptions that can be corrected?
Here are some common assumptions and their corrections.
1. I cannot be in public because I am not perfect. Actually, nobody is perfect. And you may be a victim of being in your own way with this assumption. Self-perception is often distorted, so it perpetuates the problem to isolate.
2. People will notice my imperfections. People may notice them, but most people are so much more interested in their own projections, that they are far more interested in themselves than in your imperfections. The reality is that it is not “people” who are always looking at your imperfections; it is you. So ease up on yourself.
3. People will be able to tell how nervous I am socially. Sure, they may be able to tell this, but so what? Are they really worth your altering your life in such a dramatic way that it is so disruptive? Besides, there are medications available that can take the edge of and help you feel les anxious.
4. I have nothing to say to people and they will sense my disinterest. Many, many people have nothing to say to start with. You will be surprised how simply saying this may actually start a good conversation. You can start a conversation by saying that you had reservations coming to an event but decided to not be presumptuous and come anyway.
5. Social anxiety often stems from a belief that you are not “enough” in some way. The sensation of not being enough often comes from the anxiety that disrupts your sense of self. This anxiety fragments your self-concept. The reality is that “enough” does not exist and that you are likely at least as “enough” as anybody else.
So what can you do to deal with this?
1. Stop isolating. Instead, consult with a psychiatrist or your primary care physician to see if medication may help take the edge off.
2. If you are opposed to medication, know that there are many therapies out there that can be very effective. Ask your psychiatrist about cognitive therapy and metacognitive therapy as a start. A longer-term psychodynamic therapy is usually also helpful.
3. Once you’ve addressed extreme anxiety with one of the above, reconfigure your self-concept and reflect on the points above. This will help you direct your attention away from yourself toward other people.
4. Do not expect that the fears will go away immediately. Recognize that many of them are unconscious and will take time to “find”.
5. Overcoming your fears is definitely possible and has been achieved by many people. But this is not an overnight process. Many other ancillary techniques such as meditation and exercise can be helpful.
Never lose hope. When you give up hope, you turn the brain’s light off and ask it to go to sleep. Hope is permission for the brain to stay online to find the solutions that you want.
Srini Pillay is a psychiatrist and author of Life Unlocked: 7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear. He blogs at Debunking Myths of the Mind.
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