It’s Easier to Beat Social Anxiety Than You Think

We all have a calming system. The trick is training it to turn on automatically.

Posted Mar 01, 2020

Researcher Stephen Porges discovered that when we are with other people, we unconsciously exchange signals that influence how safe we feel. Strangers trigger the release of stress hormones which cause the urge to escape. But if the stranger's body language signals us that they are not a physical threat, what Porges calls the Social Engagement System activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) enough to override the urge to escape.

What about emotional safety? When people are sizing each other up, no signals of emotional safety are being sent or received. In the absence of calming signals, some feel emotionally safe and others do not. A person with a solid history of being accepted does not need signals from others to feel at ease. He or she has what attachment theorist John Bowlby called internal working models of secure relationship. This internal resource signals the PNS to override the negative effect of whatever stress hormones are present.

But a person with a history of being judged and criticized lacks internal working models of security. With insufficient internal emotional support, they are vulnerable to stress hormone effects. They depend on signals from others to feel emotionally safe. Unfortunately, in social situations, signals may be mixed. Or there may be too many people sending signals for the signals to be processed.

Do you need to build an internal working model of a secure relationship that can carry you through the stress of social situations? Here's how. Think of the people you are physically safe with. From that group, identify a person you feel emotionally safe with. Look for someone who does not judge you. When with a non-judgmental person, you unconsciously receive signals that there is nothing you need to be on guard about. Because of this calming effect, the memory of the person's presence can activate your PNS and keep you calm in a challenging situation. You simply need to pre-link the person’s presence to the situations you will encounter.

To set up the linking exercise, list the situations to be encountered. One by one, link each situation to the memory of your friend's face, voice quality, and touch. These are the three areas that convey the signals that activate your PNS. Don't imagine yourself in the situation. That could cause stress. Instead, imagine a cartoon character in the situation. A cartoon character in a stressful situation is amusing. We don't take their predicament seriously because, no matter what happens, cartoon characters always find a way out.

1. Link to Their Face

Imagine the cartoon character in that situation. Pretend your friend is holding the cartoon touching their cheek. Keep that in mind for a few seconds to link the cartoon character's situation to the calming effect of your friend's face.

2. Link to Their Voice

Pretend you and your friend are looking at the cartoon together. Imagine talking about the situation the cartoon character is in. In a few seconds, that links the situation to the safety signals in your friend's voice.

3. Link to Their Touch

While talking about it, imagine your friend is giving you an affectionate hug (or whatever touch is appropriate for your relationship). This links the calming signals coming from your friend's touch to the situation the cartoon character is in.

Continue the linking exercise using a cartoon character as a stand-in for yourself until you have linked each situation to your friend's face, voice quality, and touch. Linking a stressful situation to a calming person is powerful. The PNS calms us by overriding the effects of stress hormones. It is activated by a person who accepts us completely. We feel our guard let down when our PNS is fully activated by another person's signals that we are safe in every way.

There are a few things I hope you will take away:

  • We all have a system that revs us up. That's the sympathetic nervous system. At birth, it is mature enough that an infant can activate it and get highly aroused.
  • We also have a system that can calm us down. That's the PNS. It is not mature at birth. An infant cannot activate it and calm down. Another person, however, can, The infant's calming system responds to a caregiver's face, voice quality, and touch. As development continues, some children become able to activate their PNS, and some do not.
  • Inability to activate the calming system is so common that we regard it as normal to control our feelings by control of the situation we are in. If control of a situation is uncertain, emotional control is maintained by maintaining an ability to escape. If neither control nor escape is certain, emotional control is not possible.
  • Contrary to what some therapies tell us, a person who has not developed the ability to activate their PNS cannot simply regulate their emotional state by what they think. A person can only slightly activate the PNS by a prescribed way of breathing.
  • When relying on advice typically given by therapists, a person with insufficient ability to actively down-regulate has no healthy option than to wait — perhaps distracted by some assigned technique — until the stress hormones up-regulating them simply burn off. Inability to activate the PNS leads toward unhealthy options. That is unfortunate, and unnecessary, because it is now possible to easily and quickly learn to activate the PNS.