While many are feeling hope and happiness as vaccinations lead to safer social opportunities, some of you may be feeling anxious about it. Social anxiety is a common condition that has only been exacerbated by lockdowns and isolation.
Is it social anxiety or shyness?
Think of social anxiety on a spectrum; shyness and social anxiety disorder are all part of one continuum. To determine whether or not it’s a problem in your life, you need to consider how much social anxiety interferes with how you want to live your life. Here’s how it may show up for you:
Persistent fear of situations involving unfamiliar people or situations, with the belief that a situation will result in humiliation or embarrassment.
The feared situation almost always produces a heightened state of anxiety or in more extreme cases will result in panic attack in adults.
Avoiding potentially stressful situations, resulting in significant academic, developmental or social impairment.
Ways to push back against it
Approaches vary depending on the severity of the symptoms and the age of the individuals but they can include:
Consult a self-help book. On its own or with therapy, a self-help book can provide effective strategies that can be practiced at home or at work.
Contact a therapist. If you haven’t had much success with self-help, seek out a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders.
Practice deep breathing every day. It can be very helpful to engage in deep breathing exercises before an anxiety-provoking social situation. Regular daily practice of this technique is required so that it becomes second nature.
Talk to loved ones about it. Let the people you love and trust know that you’re struggling with social anxiety and need some extra support to get comfortable in social situations. Let them know what you need and how they can help you.
Create an exposure hierarchy. An exposure hierarchy is a list of situations that cause you to be anxious. Starting with the easiest situation, develop strategies for managing your anxiety (e.g., visualize the situation in your mind and create different scenarios for how to successfully deal with it).
Create objective goals. Because people tend to downplay the importance of the things they do well when they feel anxious, it’s helpful to create objective behavioral goals that anyone in the room would be able to observe (e.g., if you’re attending a staff meeting, the objective behavior would be to make three comments during the meeting). Creating objective goals also gives you a good barometer for judging your progress. Don’t focus on whether you felt nervous. Success is measured based on whether you achieved your goal.
Keep a rational outlook. Avoid thinking in terms of absolutes (absolute disaster or absolute success). Focus on what is reasonable, not on worst or best case scenarios. For example, if you have to do a presentation at work, your anxious mind may tell you that you will do a terrible job. Confront this thought by recalling past presentations where you did well. If you take the time to prepare properly the thought that you will be terrible this time then this isn’t a rational or realistic perspective. Having a competing narrative that you can use to counter negative self-talk is an important strategy for overcoming many types of social anxiety.
We’ve had over a year to adapt to being apart - don’t expect social anxiety to go away immediately. It will take persistence, a whole lot of little steps and encouraging yourself along the way to get back to a level of social interaction that you feel good about.