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Anxiety

7 Steps to Nip Social Anxiety in the Bud with Imagery

Reimagining your most feared situations can help you boost your confidence.

Key points

  • Social anxiety can stem from a traumatic experience in public that makes you feel unduly bad about yourself.
  • Research shows that rewriting your memory of a socially upsetting experience can help you achieve greater-self-confidence.
  • Seven specific steps can help you reap the benefits of re-imagining your past.

You ordinarily feel just fine about speaking publicly, whether virtually or in person. You’ve even become fairly confident about performing in front of others when you want to entertain them with your guitar, piano, or singing. However, much to your surprise, on a Zoom call, someone just questioned you in a way that felt to you to be close to bullying. Or, while you sat down at the piano to play a well-practiced tune from memory, the first note went flying out of your head, and as your audience began to giggle, you tried to escape the situation as quickly as possible.

People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) experience generally unrealistically high levels of worry about a range of possible situations in which they could be mocked by others or just embarrass themselves. As a result, they avoid these situations as much as possible. Given that complete escape from public appearances is hardly an option (including on Zoom calls), these individuals face constant threats to their well-being and mental health. You’d like to excise these fears from your own mind after a bout with performance anxiety so they don’t become a chronic issue.

A New Approach Can Help Ease Social Anxiety

Whether you are an individual with a diagnosable case of social anxiety disorder or believe you’re starting to experience symptoms, a new approach can help restore calm and allow you to enter public situations with confidence instead of worry. In a newly-published study by the University of Sydney’s Alice Norton and colleagues (2021), “aversive social experiences,” or social trauma, “are a key and proximal cause of the development of SAD,” and “appraisal of such socially traumatic experiences” can maintain the disorder through “negative beliefs and imagery."

The types of social trauma the Australian authors refer to include bullying and rejection, but while SAD tends to develop in childhood, there is no reason these traumatic events can’t occur in adulthood as well. You can be bullied by a colleague or rejected by a group (such as a club or team) or by a romantic partner at any point in your life. That frozen moment at the piano could set off a chain of negative mental events that you carry forward to your next potential opportunity to accompany friends and family in holiday songs.

Citing previous research, Norton and her collaborators note that, from a cognitive perspective, people with social anxiety hold overly high standards for performance in front of others and irrational beliefs that one mistake will lead to harsh judgments from other people, and they also hold such beliefs as “I’m weird.” People with these beliefs may even experience mental images of themselves being laughed at or booed in front of others.

To counteract these beliefs and images, the U. Sydney research team borrowed from the method known as imagery rescripting (IR) in which you literally rewrite, in your memory, a socially traumatic experience. They combined IR with traditional cognitive behavioral therapy offered in a group modality format (GCBT) to test whether the use of guided imagery could produce benefits above and beyond the ordinary CBT effects produced by helping individuals restructure their thoughts and beliefs.

Using a sample of 15 individuals (60% female) diagnosed with SAD, the Australian researchers administered both clinical and cognitively-oriented measures. The Social Interaction Anxiety Scale (SIAS) includes a set of questions about people’s fears of social interaction. The Social Phobia Scale (SPS) measures the fear of scrutiny by others. Participants also completed the Brief Fear of Negative Evalution Scale (B-FNE), which taps fearful or worrying thoughts about being judged negatively by others.

7 Steps to Rewrite Your Past Experiences with Social Anxiety

To delve specifically into the imagery that participants had while in social interactions, the research team administered an interview that probed the meaning and mental images that participants stated they had in a social situation.

Put yourself in the place of one of the participants by following these instructions:

  1. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a highly socially threatening situation.
  2. Does a mental image come to mind in this situation?
  3. If yes, describe the image in detail, including your facial expression, body language, physical sensations, and memories.
  4. What memories do you have linked to these images?

Next, participants identified the core beliefs they had regarding these image-related memories by answering these questions:

  1. When you experience this image, is there often a particular kind of thought that pops into your head along with it?
  2. If that thought were true, what would it mean about/to you?
  3. How valid would your beliefs about yourself be?

Finally, participants rated the degree to which the emotions they associated with the image were positive or negative; how intense they were; and whether they felt either embarrassed/ashamed or pleased/proud.

As you responded to these prompts yourself, then, you could see how delving into your imagery, your memories, and your emotions can give you insight into the nature of your automatic thoughts and whether you interpret these images in terms of your feelings of inadequacy. Ideally, when you think back on a situation in which you performed you would see yourself as successful and feel inwardly proud of how well you had done. Even if you did make a mistake, you would still view the experience as a credit to your ability or feelings of self-worth.

The Benefits of Re-Imagining and Rewriting Your Past

Turning now to the intervention, the GCBT continued for an 8-week period with sessions lasting for 3 hours that were conducted by a clinical psychologist. Again, this was a typical CBT intervention aimed at detecting and then changing automatic thoughts and their associated emotions. In the IR component of the treatment, which was conducted individually, the clinician instructed participants to retell the memory from the perspective of the person they were at the time, starting with the beginning, and ending when they reached the moment of peak distress. Then the clinician instructed the participants to fast-forward to their current self and to alter the course of events until they could imagine a more positive or satisfying outcome. In the next session, participants were invited to relive the experience and incorporate the script of that better outcome. At that point, participants were also given “safe place imagery” so they could console themselves, again, from the perspective of their older self.

As the authors predicted, IR provided an added boost to GCBT’s effects on the key outcome measures of the study (the SIAS and SPS). Compared to GCBT alone, moreover, the IR helped participants lower their fear of negative evaluation, identification with negative core beliefs, and negative affect. As an added benefit, the IR intervention promoted lower levels of shame associated with the aversive event. Participants also reported a boost to their mood.

The lack of a control group posed a limitation to the study's findings, a problem the authors acknowledge. Additionally, the measures intended to detect changes in symptoms were administered only after the final session and not after some time had elapsed. There’s no way of knowing, then, how long the benefits of the IR continued. However, the impact of the IR intervention at least gave participants a fresh look at elements of their past that may have haunted them for years.

To sum up, nipping social anxiety in the bud can begin by taking an honest and comprehensive look at your most painful social episodes. The next step is to be willing to write a different ending than the one you experienced. As you do so, your “current” self can redraw the course of history of your “past” self. Clearly, the more time that’s elapsed between those selves, the more difficult such a reworking can be. However, if you’re able to catch the memory before it becomes too deeply ingrained, you may be able to move from fear to fulfillment as you step into your own particular limelight.

References

Norton, A. R., Abbott, M. J., Dobinson, K. A., Pepper, K. L., & Guastella, A. J. (2021). Rescripting social trauma: A pilot study investigating imagery rescripting as an adjunct to cognitive behaviour therapy for social anxiety disorder. Cognitive Therapy and Research. doi: 10.1007/s10608-021-10221-9

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