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Overcoming Social Anxiety

Today is the first day of spring – at last! As we leave winter behind, you may notice your social life, as well as the trees and flowers, undergoing a rebirth.
But do you find socializing is not always as easy and relaxed as you’d like it to be? Do you sometimes feel awkward and self-conscious around people, for brief moments or more persistently? Do you want to be invited to social events, but then on the night sometimes feel you’d rather stay at home?

If so, you may be suffering from some degree of ‘social anxiety’.

Human beings are said to be social creatures. Even so, we often don’t feel as relaxed and comfortable around people as we’d like.
‘Social anxiety’ is the anxiety of what other people think of us and being negatively judged and evaluated, leading to feelings of awkwardness, self-consciousness, embarrassment, shyness or lack of confidence. At a deeper level, social anxiety is the fear within our own psyche that we project onto others.
Nearly everyone suffers from social anxiety to some degree.
For example, most people can relate to feeling anxious in certain social situations, such as speaking in public, a job interview or going on a date. Many people also experience more general feelings of shyness, awkwardness or lack of confidence.
For those with more severe social anxiety, persistent feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness can make everyday interactions and tasks such as working, shopping, eating out or speaking on the phone a wearing ordeal. Public performances or social gatherings might be out of the question.
When social anxiety becomes this bad, sufferers can be diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), also known as Social Phobia. This is the most common form of anxiety disorder and is estimated to effect 2%-3% of people in the UK.

Even the mildest social anxiety can be troubling and result in missed opportunities, emotionally and practically.
Social anxiety is uncomfortable and makes it more difficult to enjoy social interactions, connect with other people and feel ‘a part of’ things. It can be frustrating, painful and isolating not to be able to relax and be yourself with other people.  

If social anxiety makes you avoid life – in obvious and more subtle ways – you can miss out in practical ways. After all, who knows what would have happened had you spoken up at the meeting, approached that ‘important’ person for a conversation, or joined in with a new group of people?
Social anxiety is also linked with other problems such as depression and addiction. Part of the reason people use alcohol, drugs, food and other substances and behaviours is to cope with or numb the discomfort of social anxiety. Recovery from addiction involves learning how to manage difficult feelings that come up around other people.

People with social anxiety often think they were somehow born this way, as a naturally shy, awkward or anxious person.
But social anxiety isn’t a personality trait – you don’t feel shy or self-conscious when you’re alone.
Social anxiety isn’t who you are, and can be overcome. Effective treatment isn’t so much about improving your social skills – chances are you have perfectly good social skills – but rather developing more ground within yourself so there’s less room for anxiety.

Below I have briefly outlined five treatment approaches. They are more effectively carried out with the support of a good therapist but may also give you some ideas for self-help.

1. Calm your nervous system

Anxiety is reflected in the body’s nervous system. If you’ve been anxious for a long time, your body’s ‘stress response system’ may be stuck in the ‘on’ position, making it difficult to manage your feelings.
There are many things you can do to adjust your nervous system to a calmer level. Exercise is helpful, but even better are practices such as Alexander Technique, yoga and meditation which engage both mind and body in retraining your nervous system to process feelings more easily.

2. Practice dual awareness

Social anxiety is accompanied by physical sensations, in particular a sense of tightening or contraction in the body, often in the stomach, chest or throat area.
‘Dual awareness’ is the practice of paying attention to these feelings and sensations inside you, whilst at the same time taking in what’s going on around you. It is an extremely helpful self-help tool for preventing and reducing panic and anxiety.
3. Comfort your inner child
Though we have all reached a certain number of years, we also carry the deep memory of every age we’ve been up to this point. It is not our ‘adult self’ that feels anxious and overwhelmed in social situations but rather younger parts of us.
Therapy can help you re-parent these younger parts of yourself. By bringing the adult and younger parts of yourself into healthy relationship, you can express more of who you are freely and appropriately in life.
 4.  Identify your ‘story’ and unmet needs
There are powerful exercises that can help you work through the issues underlying your anxiety. Therapy can help you to identify and process the unmet needs that give rise to your anxiety, and the meanings or ‘story’ you’ve made of this, and connect to yourself at the level of your deeper wants and needs. This is a transformative process.

5. Build ‘safe’ relationships
A safe relationship is one in which you feel accepted and trust the other person enough to be able to talk about what’s really going on for you. Even one relationship in which you feel safe enough to be open can help you reduce anxiety and isolation.
Therapists who work in a relational way offer a special kind of safe relationship in which you can process not only what’s going on for you outside therapy, but also, if you choose to, in your relationship with the therapist herself.  Being able to process your experience in the context of a safe, mindful relationship is perhaps the most healing and empowering experience available to any of us.

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