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Freaking Out in Social Situations Isn’t Inevitable

Socially anxious people can turn stress to their advantage

When you have social anxiety, you constantly feel like they are being negatively evaluated by those around you. Whether it’s in an interview, speaking up in a meeting, or simply meeting someone new for the first time, social anxiety can be debilitating – causing folks to stumble on their every word or, worse yet, to freeze, to have their minds go blank. Fortunately, new research to be published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science provides some clues as to how to lessen the unwanted problems that social anxiety can cause.

For several years, psychologist Jeremy Jamieson and his colleagues have been exploring the benefits of having people reappraise – a.k.a. to think twice – about their arousal in potentially stressful situations. For instance, Jamieson and his colleagues have shown that getting students to think about their arousal (such as a rapidly beating heart) in an important testing situation as an energy resource that can actually help them perform better boots test scores. In his most recent work, Jamieson wanted to know whether socially anxious individuals could also benefit from rethinking their stress.

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To begin, people identified as having high levels of social anxiety and folks without any anxiety or mood disorders were invited to Jamieson’s lab to take part in a series of cognitive challenges. Once there, everyone was told that they were going to have to give a short speech about their strengths and weaknesses to two interviewers. They were also told the speech would be videotaped and that they would have just three minutes to prepare. A stressful situation for anyone – especially for folks who have social anxiety.

To test whether anything could be done about the stress of the situation. Before people started to prepare their speech, Jamieson and his colleagues gave some of the volunteers tips for how to reappraise or reframe their potential anxious reactions. Here is what he said:

“In stressful situations, like public speaking, our bodies react in very specific ways. The increase in arousal you may feel during stress is not harmful. Instead, these responses evolved to help our ancestors survive by delivering oxygen to where it is needed in the body. We encourage you to reinterpret your bodily signals during the upcoming public speaking task as beneficial.”

After the reframing instructions, people also read summaries of scientific articles outlining the benefits of stress.

So, just to recap. Both socially-anxious and less-anxious individuals gave a speech under scrutiny. Some folks were fortunate enough to be given suggestions for reframing their stressful reactions; others were not.

What did Jamieson and his colleagues find? Interestingly, there was no difference in people’s physiological responses to the stressful speaking situation as a function of whether they had social anxiety. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising given that giving an impromptu speech is somewhat stressful to most anyone. What did differ was how anxiety-proving the volunteers reported the situation to be. Despite the fact that their bodily reactions were no different, socially anxious people reported that they felt more anxious about the speech.

Most striking, when provided with tips for rethinking their arousal, volunteers’ views of the situation changed. They still reported the public speaking situation to be demanding, but now they believed they possessed greater resources to cope with the situation compared to folks who didn’t get the reframing tips. Those who were given tools to reframe also showed improvements in their physiological responses to the evaluative stress. And, the benefit of the reframing exercise was seen for those who were socially anxious and also those who were not.

Social anxiety disorder is one of the most prevalent mental disorders, affecting over 12% of people at some point over the course of their lifetime. As Jamieson and his colleagues note, their reappraisal techniques may not be the one “silver bullet” for treating social anxiety, but it does seem to be a promising tool people have at their disposal. It’s also a tool that may help anyone feel and perform at their best in those situations that stress them out the most.

For more on how to perform at your best in stressful situations, check out my book “Choke

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Jamieson, J. et al. (in press). Changing the conceptualization of stress in social anxiety disorder: Affective and physiological consequences. Clinical Psychological Science.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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