Social Anxiety: learning to step out

Soaking up the wide leg JNCO jeans...

As a teenager, I used to frequent this coffee shop that hosted raves by night, but by day- it was home to slacker wannabe poets and artists- your basic bohemian wonderland. While I was nothing of a skilled club dancer, I would consider myself an avid people watcher- soaking up the wide leg JNCO jeans, reflective wear, glow sticks and pacifiers. To my chagrin, the restroom was located on the other side of the dance floor, and there was literally no route in which I could escape the crowd of dancing party people. It honestly appeared as though the dance floor got larger as I saw the length I would have to walk amidst the chaos. That's when the feeling of social anxiety hits. People may experience increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweat erupts, and muscles tense- braced for impact. Your body tells you it's not safe in this situation and GET OUT! This is also commonly experienced with people facing public speaking engagements, performance, going to a party alone, a first date, or even the first day of school. Social anxiety is a little different than generalized anxiety, in that it is triggered by social interaction. Generalized anxiety can happen at anytime, including sitting alone on the couch watching TV, in a perfectly safe environment. Generalized anxiety can be made worse by social situations, but it isn't by any means a prerequisite. 

How did people dance in these things?

How did people dance in these things?

Oozing adrenaline and cortisol...

The symptoms I described earlier, are part of the fight or flight response within our limbic system. This response is actually a gift, that would allow us to run from a predator, save our kids from danger, and evoke strength that is normally not accessible under everyday circumstances. The problem is, our limbic system doesn't really take the time to fill out a questionnaire about the validity of our fears before oozing out adrenaline and cortisol into our systems. This theoretically helpful, and automatic response can cripple people from experiencing full lives by hindering social relationships, avoiding professional development, and generally isolating the sufferer. People change their habits and behavior, in order to diminish these uncomfortable feelings. For example, a friend asks you to dinner, but it will involve meeting in a new environment, navigating crowds of people, and inevitable discomfort. Better cancel. A job is offered to you, but public speaking is a large part of this role. Sure, the salary bump would be nice, but is it worth the anxiety? Better turn it down. Your kids are dying to go to the fair this summer. They've grown past the "must be this tall" sign, ecstatic to hit the rides with the gusto of a tasmanian devil. But it's family night. More people. Bigger crowds. Better take them to McDonald's instead. Social anxiety steals our experiences, making our world tiny and unbearable outside of a very safely defined comfort zone.

In this scene out of the movie "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," Charlie struggles with severe social anxiety, before awkwardly hitting the dance floor with his animated friends.

So what causes social anxiety? There are three major reasons.

  1. Genetic predisposition. As I mentioned in my depression article, we inherit all sorts of things from our families. Red hair, a natural talent for yodeling, or left-handedness. All of these traits are inherited. Let me tell you a neat story about cherry blossoms. There was a study in which mice were exposed to the scent of cherry blossoms in a confined space. Every time the mice had the scent of cherry blossoms wafted into their cage, they were zapped (poor mice!) with electricity. Over time, these mice were trained to associate the scent of cherry blossoms with pain. The mice were only exposed to this scent for a few days, before they were bred. The offspring of the mice, having never associated the scent of cherry blossoms with pain, became more agitated when exposed to the scent later in life. Holy cow! Do you know what that means? Some of the symptoms of anxiety or distress can be handed down to us over generations. Grandma felt anxiety in crowded ration lines during the depression era? Generations later, long lines at Costco elicit feelings of dread. It's not just you! It may have been a gift from good ol Nana.
  2. Problem thinking. There are about ten problem thinking styles that people get caught up in, that end in feelings of ickiness and dread. We all do them. The ones that impact people with anxiety the most, are called fortune-telling and mind-reading
    1. Fortune-telling: if I go to the party, everything will be horrible. I'm going to act weird, laugh wrong, and everyone is going to hate me. If you're engaging in this thinking style, you've already made up your mind that things will be a disaster, even if you don't have any proof (like psychic abilities).
    2. Mind-reading: Erin just looked at me weird. I knew she hated me! Gosh, I bet she's thinking "Why is she here? No one likes her." Oh my goodness, get me out of this place! When someone is doing that mind-reading thing, there are a slew of assumptions going on. There is a lack of proof, and general leap from A to Z without any real dialogue to warrant it. 
  3. Lack of control: Recently, a friend of mine offered her insight into the world of social anxiety. She stated rather simply, that we all long for control. However, control is really just an illusion. We can't control any social situation, and never could. In the end, we are seeking control where we never had it. When we realize our lack of control, the illusion is stripped away and anxiety is left in it's absence. Yowch. I find this a painfully accurate description. 

Nestled in your cocoon of predictability...

With all three of these scenarios, a person reacts to the fight or flight response with distress, (duh!) and because we don't like this feeling, avoidance is inevitable. This fear response becomes more and more intensified over time, and before you know it- you're staying home from all public engagements, safely nestled in your cocoon of predictability. Yahoo! Except there is one little problem. Like all criteria for mental illness, if it is impacting your daily life and creating significant distress, it's an issue. So what now? How can you get past it?

First and foremost, you aren't alone. Social anxiety is extremely common, even in the most poised and confident of humans. While many of my struggles with anxiety have been beaten out of me due to frequent public speaking engagements, I know how paralyzing it can be. I used to have to talk myself into simple coffee dates for hours, listening to calming music and repeating affirmations in the mirror (don't judge). Even my first years of waiting tables terrified me, talking to strangers during exceptionally tender moments. One time, that I cut my thumb with my extraordinarily overzealous wine key, just as a man proposed to his lady friend at my table. I was so nervous about the engagement, that I bled all over their red wine bottle. Ugh. If you just imagine every possible public humiliation- I've had it. Even last week, I realized at noon, that I had a chunk of walnut from my banana bread between my teeth for three patient sessions. I ask you, can't people tell me these things? My point is, there was a moment in which I realized that I'm entirely imperfect, and I'm going to have to stay that way. Social anxiety often brings with it negative self-talk that makes you feel small and alone. Your inner voice is a horrible critic, and an inaccurate one. 

No one is thinking about you...

Last night I was reading the exceptionally inspirational book- Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote about her nerves regarding her work, to be published when it didn't seem entirely finished to her liking (like every writer- ever). She received a piece of advice that I will give you now. No one is thinking about you. They are too busy thinking about themselves. I mean, I'm sure you are extremely interesting, witty, and super-fabulous, but really- no one is thinking about it. Every person around you is dealing with their own gunk, clouding up their headspace with insecurity and fear. All better? NO? Alright. Here are a few things you might try to ease up on the social anxiety: 

5 ways to beat social anxiety...

  1. Check in. Do you have a person you can be vulnerable with? A person that you can tell all your insecurities, skeletons, and worst fears- yet they come back for more, loving you unconditionally? That's the person I'm talking about. Give them a call, text, or invite them to coffee and just lay it out, asking for realistic feedback. I have one of these people, and boy-howdy, I owe her a few diet cokes for the comfort she has provided me at the drop of a hat. The wind beneath my wings, this one.
  2. Logic your way through it. I'm a big evidence gal. If the icky tummy thing is getting to me, I run to a monster journaling session. Journaling gives you an opportunity to deconstruct your possibly irrational fears, and ground yourself in evidence. Did your boss really say he was going to fire you, if you screw up your presentation? I didn't think so. The world will not end. I promise.
  3. Exposure. One way that therapists help people conquer specific phobias, is a method called systematic desensitization. This process allows the person exposure to the thing that is terrifying them, while implementing relaxation techniques that reduce the intensity of the fear over time. For example, if you are fearful of going to crowded events, intentionally go to these events, while using breathing techniques and visualization to guide you through your stressor. In time, you will realize you have more control over your fight or flight response than you originally thought. In fact, some people report diminished symptoms of anxiety after as little as 20 minutes of exposure to a stressful social event. You have the power!
  4. Counseling. Let's face it. I'm a huge fan of counseling. If you don't have a person to be vulnerable with, if your feelings are too overwhelming to get a good handle on, counseling is your answer. A counselor can provide you with unconditional support, objective reasoning, and cognitive behavioral therapy, which allows you the opportunity to reassign your inner-critic, to be your biggest advocate. It's a magical process, and I am eternally thankful for it myself. 
  5. Medication. While medication isn't for everyone, it can be very helpful for some. Unfortunately, if someone suffers anxiety, they are likely to struggle with depression as well. Both of these can get knocked out with a simple SSRI (a class of antidepressants). Also, some "as needed" medication can also help for acute episodes of anxiety like, flying on a plane, large groups of people, public speaking, etc.. This latter class of medications (benzodiazepines) are unfortunately highly addictive, and should be used sparingly and appropriately. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the details of your struggle, and they will help you make the right treatment choice.

Running from dinosaurs and honey badgers...

At the end of the day, we are all desperately hoping to be loved and accepted exactly as we are. No one wants to be seen as "less than" by people that for one reason or another, matter to us. We strive to be perfect, and falling short of perfection is not only likely, it's a guarantee. Your body created this fight or flight thing to keep you alive- running from dinosaurs, or honey badgers. It is a magical instinct, that just needs a little obedience training. Take it from this queen of fumbles and flukes, you are enough. You will rock that speech. You can saunter across that crowded room with grace, and YOU, my dear friend- are fabulous. Just as you are.