Sometimes the best suggestions go against common sense. For example, have you ever heard the advice given to insomniacs that they should try to stay awake for as long as possible? Paradoxically, this approach leads them to fall asleep more quickly.
The same can be true in the case of social anxiety. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to stop fighting. I don't mean give up, but stop working so hard to prevent your anxious reactions.
Norman, a 65-year-old recently retired business executive, came to see me because of a problem with blushing. He reported that he had a few instances of this earlier in his life, but he had forgotten about it until recently when the problem returned with a vengeance. He described an incident that took place about a month ago when he went to the dry cleaners to pick up some clothes. He couldn't remember what triggered it, but he felt himself getting hot in the neck and face. "I was burning up. I know I must have been bright red," he said. Norman was accustomed to being calm and in control. This experience unnerved him.
Other blushing episodes occurred when he was at the bank, shopping at the department store, or even when some of his wife's friends came over to play bridge. He began to anticipate when he might blush, and to avoid any situations in which he thought it might happen. Despite his avoidance, the blushing continued in an unpredictable manner.
I knew from experience with some of my other clients that blushing problems aren't easy to overcome. Sometimes relaxation techniques help diminish the excessive physiological arousal, but I'd often found such straightforward techniques weren't enough.
What seemed to help Norman the most was when he "invited the symptoms." Let me describe what we did.
Norman probably thought I was crazy at first because I gave him the assignment of purposefully trying to blush for five-minute periods, three times a day. He was to keep a log of the sessions and note how successful he was at producing the blushing. He could do this at home to begin with. Later, I wanted him to try to blush on command while out in public. I also asked Norman to keep a tally count of the number of times he blushed when he wasn't purposefully trying.
What do you think happened?
Norman’s blushing episodes decreased dramatically. When he first came to see me he reported he was blushing almost daily. After a few months of "inviting the symptom," Norman was blushing about once every two weeks. When he did feel himself blushing on those occasions, he wasn't devastated by it. Of course, our sessions involved helping him to examine his thoughts and beliefs about the blushing—what it meant about him that he sometimes blushed and what the consequences of blushing might be.
Ultimately, Norman learned two important things. One, he had more control than he thought he did. And two, he could tolerate the uncertainty of not having total control.
In addition to Inviting the Symptom, here are a few other suggestions.
Acceptance is just recognizing the situation as it is, without judgment. Say to yourself, "This is just what my body does. I don't really like it, but it's there, and fighting against it hasn't gotten me anywhere."
Diminish its power.
Okay, so right now blushing is a part of your life, but only give it a small place in your life. Ask yourself, what would I do if I didn't have this blushing condition? Then, consider whether you can do these things even with the blushing. In other words, do what you value in spite of the blushing. I’m not saying this will be easy; it won’t be. But it's a goal worth shooting for.
Develop a one-sentence explanation.
I recently heard a story about a girl who has a condition where she is bald. Someone said they thought her parents should have her wear a wig. The person who knew the girl said, she just tells people she had an illness and her hair never grew back. Because she doesn’t make a big deal of it, most of the kids accept her explanation and move on.
Maybe it would help you to make up a brief explanation…something like, “I know, sometimes I get really red. My body just does that at random times.”
Have compassion for yourself.
Realize that this is a tough situation. It's difficult to blush and then wonder what people think. You've tried so hard to overcome it. Don’t make it worse by beating yourself up. Treat yourself as you would a good friend who is going through the same situation.
You might also like Must-Have Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety.
*Also, I want to make it clear that this can be a very disabling problem. In researching this article, I found a new website, created to honor the loss of a child who had social anxiety and blushing, and presumably took his life due to the severity of his condition.
Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.
–Ask, by The Smiths (Read how we named our blog.)
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I am the co-author of Dying of Embarrassment, Painfully Shy, and Nurturing the Shy Child. Dying of Embarrassment: Help for Social Anxiety & Phobia was found to be one of the most useful and scientifically grounded self-help books in a research study published in Professional Psychology, Research and Practice. I’ve also been featured in the award-winning PBS documentary, Afraid of People. Greg and I also co-authored Illuminating the Heart: Steps Toward a More Spiritual Marriage.
Photo credit: Pink Sherbet Photography, via flickr, CC