Everyone experiences social anxiety differently. And not just because this type of anxiety can be triggered by a wide range of situations, ranging from public speaking to making small talk or going on dates. Rather, the feeling of anxiety itself usually manifests in different ways: it doesn’t always look or feel the same. In fact, it rarely does.
1. Reframing our worries
Sometimes, we experience the most intense anxiety when we are anticipating a social event to come. That is, we begin to worry as soon as we learn of an impending social event (say, we receive an invitation for a party or are given a work assignment that will entail a presentation). We get in other people's heads and run through a million different scenarios in which things go wrong. We might even go so far as to convince ourselves that it will be a disaster and that there will be no coming back from it. We might catastrophize. We might panic. We might even freeze.
Sometimes, we might be able to avoid the situation altogether, thus experiencing short term relief—at the cost of never learning that it wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated. Other times, however, we might not be able to avoid the situation and might have no choice but to endure it with great distress (or resort to crutches like drinking or over-preparing).
When we experience a lot of anticipatory anxiety and worries, it can be helpful to practice “cognitive reframing” exercises to change how we think about these worries. Some useful questions to ask ourselves are: 1) What is the likelihood that the feared consequence will happen? 2) If it does, what is the worst that could happen? 3) Is there another way of interpreting this situation? and 4) What would we tell a friend in a similar situation?
Another exercise to try is to gradually and slowly approach those situations that we are tempted to avoid because of our anxiety. This is called “exposure” and it’s a very complex process, as it entails doing those very same things that make us anxious. As such, it is recommended that you practice it under the care and guidance of a mental health professional (see Find a Therapist).
2. Making Room for Our Anxiety
Some people may experience the most intense anxiety when we are in the midst of the dreaded social situation. This is frequently manifested as physical anxiety: we might find ourselves sweating, trembling, shaking, or blushing. It might also take the form of mental anxiety—maybe we hesitate and don’t know what to say or quickly agree with other people’s opinions even if they are far from our own. In these cases, we can easily lose track of a conversation, becoming out of sync with other people and getting more anxious.
When we experience a lot of panicking “in the moment,” it can be helpful to practice mindfulness exercises. These can teach us how to embrace our anxiety without trying to fight it or letting it get to our heads. In this case, it can be helpful to practice “cognitive defusion” exercises from a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In a nutshell, these teach us how to observe and allow negative thoughts without "buying into them" (see “Are you and your thoughts the same?").
3. Letting go of Ruminations
Lastly, sometimes we engage in extensive rumination about how we did in a social situation. This is called “post-event processing” and it basically consists of re-hashing every little aspect of our performance through a negative lens. We criticize ourselves for what we said (or didn’t) and berate ourselves for how we did it. We convince ourselves that we completely messed up and end up drowning in a sea of negative thoughts. We might feel completely inadequate and useless. We might become hopeless.
All of this makes us feel less confident in our social skills, and thus we become more likely to worry about future social situations. As such, we become trapped in a vicious cycle of ruminations about the past and worries about the future.
When we engage in a lot of post-event processing, it can be helpful to start by practicing cognitive reframing exercises similar to the ones described above. So, for example, we can ask ourselves: 1) What evidence do we have that the situation did not go well? 2) Do we have any evidence to the contrary? 3) What would we tell a friend in a similar situation? And then, we can shift our focus to identifying those aspects of the experience that went well and build upon those in the future. In this case, 1) Can we think of one thing that went relatively OK? (Perhaps even well?) 2) What are things that we can do differently next time? 3) What are things that we can’t change?
As always, please keep in mind that these posts are for educational purposes only and do not constitute clinical advice. If you suspect that you—or someone in your life—is struggling with a mental health problem, please consult a mental health professional.