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Understanding Social Phobia

April 18, 2016

We all get a little nervous or a bit self-conscious on occasions - for example, when we need to give a speech or when we have a job interview or perhaps an important presentation at work. But when it is more pervasive, or more than just a bit of nerves or shyness, it might be described as social phobia or social anxiety. When it is more of a problem, and possibly described as a disorder,  (like social anxiety disorder), the fear of being embarrassed or having ‘bad’ attention  placed on us can become so intense that we can find ourselves avoiding, or staying away from those situations that might bring on the feelings of anxiety.  Be assured though that we can all learn to be more comfortable and confident in social and group settings. It doesn’t matter if you are a more reserved or shy person naturally, we can all build confidence and skills.

WHAT IS SOCIAL PHOBIA?

Social phobia involves a really strong fear of certain or many types of situation that involves people. It can be especially seen in those situations that take us out of our comfort zone, are unfamiliar to us, or where we feel we are being evaluated by others people.  For some people, these types of situations can have such a profound effect that even thinking about them or talking about them can bring on some feelings of anxiety, and we may even avoid talking about it!

This is actually all about our fear of being embarrassed, judged or scrutinised by other people. Some say it is about being afraid of what people will think of us, or that we don’t seem to measure up or that we aren’t as good at something. Some people know that what they are thinking is not necessarily logical or correct, or even based on facts, but they still can’t help feeling anxious. For some it is like they have gotten out of the habit of listening to their own reason.

As mentioned earlier, there is something that can be done about this fear of social settings. It involves some honesty, hard work and putting ourselves in the situations that might bring on some fears. The first step is to analyse and understand the problem. Some of the typical triggers that bring on anxiety.  Although it may feel like you’re the only one with this problem, social anxiety or social phobia is actually pretty common. A lot of people live with these fears and struggle in this area. The things that bring on or trigger the fear can be a little different though for different people.

For some people the anxiety is quite general and comes about in most situations where they need to perform or when they need to be social. For other people their anxiety is tied to more specific situations; for example speaking in public, doing something where there are people watching, talking to strangers, meeting people for the first time, going to parties, joining a group or being the leader in a group situation.  The most commonly reported specific social phobia involves some sort of public speaking or presentation.

There are some typical situations or triggers that bring on the phobia:
 • Going to parties • Joining a group • Being the centre of attention in a group setting • Being watched whilst doing your job • Public speaking • Eating in public • Meeting people for the first time • Starting a conversation • Making small-talk • Having a conversation with people we think are more important or have a position of  power • Being assessed or evaluated • Being criticised

SOME COMMON SIGNS YOU ARE EXPERIENCING SOCIAL PHOBIA

Social anxiety is more than just being shy or self-conscious. The anxiety and phobia actually gets in the way of normal and everyday functioning.  It also leads us to feeling quite distressed.  It is one thing to be a nervous and get the ‘butterflies’ before giving a speech, but for some people it is more far-reaching than that. For some people who have social anxiety disorder, the prospect of talking in public can make you worry for weeks ahead of the event, and possibly make a real effort to avoid it.

FIRST STEP IN GETTING ON TOP OF IT - Analyse and identify the negative thoughts  

People who experience social anxiety have negative thoughts and beliefs that reinforce and contribute to their anxiety. The following examples of thoughts might resonate.


·         ‘People are going to think I am stupid.’
·         ‘I don't have anything interesting to say, I am boring’.
·         ‘People will see that I can’t do my job well.’
·         ‘My voice will start to tremble and people will notice’.
·         ‘People will think I am not worthy of standing up here and talking.’ 

The first step is to understand and identify where and when these negative thoughts are happening. Then challenging these negative thoughts and telling a different story internally to the thoughts that can so easily hold you back or keep you feeling anxious. This can be done in a counselling setting or you can do it on your own.

 

Starting to do this is the first step toward being in control and bringing down the symptoms of social phobia.  Begin by identifying the automatic or negative thought(s) that underly an instance of social phobia. An example is being afraid of going to a party and meeting a new group of people. The underlying thought might be; ‘I am going to stand around without anyone to talk to and nothing to say, I will feel embarrassed and people will think I am a fool.’  Then once you have identified the negative thoughts, and then challenge them. A good start is to ask yourself a question about the negative thoughts. ‘Am I sure I will stand there on my own? Will others see and judge me?’ or “Even if I am on my own for a few minutes, others are aware of that and they will help me out.’  By checking and countering your negative you can replace them with more balanced and positive ways of thinking. It is a bit like upgrading software in a computer system.

Thinking styles that are not helping if you are experiencing social anxiety. There is a range of ways that people think about things when they are experiencing social phobia. Below are some ways of describing the types of thoughts that may stop us from getting on top of social phobia.

  • Catastrophising – Thinking that the worst possible thing may come true and blowing stuff out of proportion to the situation that you are in. For example, if my voice trembles a bit, then I will come across as nervous and that will be ‘awful’. Or I might get left on my own at the party and that would be a ‘disaster’.

  • Mind reading – This refers to the assumption that we know what other people are thinking about us. And guess what, because we are thinking negatively about ourselves, then they are thinking negatively about us. 

  • Predicting the future – Assuming a bad outcome and things are going to go horribly.

  • Taking things very personally – This refers to assuming that people are being negative in their thinking about you.

 

Stop thinking that people are looking at you.  As an alternative to being overly focused on yourself and being too self-conscious, make a deliberate effort to pay attention to what is happening around you. This will bring your attention away from any effects of anxiety in your body and help you to connect with the situation that you are in.

  • In the environment take a studied look at all of the aspects of your situations; people and surroundings.

  • Tune the conversation in and tune your thoughts down. This is about being mindful of what people are saying, reflecting back their comment to show you are listening and paying less attention to your own, possibly critical thoughts.

  • You are not the only one carrying the conversation. A bit of silence is OK and others will chip in as well. 


SECOND STEP IN GETTING ON TOP OF IT – Relaxing & breathing well 

Anxiety affects our body and makes many things actually change in our body. For example, many people say that they feel butterflies in their stomach, tension in all parts of the body and that their breathing changes. This change in breathing can be seen in shortness of breath or over-breathing, which in turn could lead to putting ‘out of kilter’ the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. This in turn may lead to other physical signs of anxiety. Some of these are things like feeling dizzy, feeling suffocated, tension in muscles and a rapid heart rate.

Being aware of this and learning to slow breathing down can help bring physical symptoms of anxiety back under control. A really good idea is to research different relaxation exercises and find one that works for you. Then practice it, so that when you are in a social situation that can trigger anxiety, you can do it. Below is a simple one that you might try out.


A Relaxation and Breathing Exercise

 

  • Stand or sit comfortably, straight back and start by relaxing your shoulders.  Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.

  • Take a slow and deep breath through the nose, taking about 4 seconds. Notice the stomach hand moving a lot more than the chest hand.

  • Hold your breath for a few seconds.

  • Breathe out slowly through your mouth for 6 seconds. Once again the stomach hand moving a lot more than the chest hand.

  • Keep doing this for a little while, in through the nose and out through the mouth. Some people call this ‘belly-breathing’.

 


THIRD STEP IN GETTING ON TOP OF IT  - Confronting your fears and exposing yourself to them

So you have identified the things that might trigger anxiety, you have tracked some of the negative thoughts that go along with it, and importantly you have some relaxation and breathing techniques that can bring down some of anxiety responses in your body that might be making your anxiety worse. Along with this, it is important to face some of the situations that make you anxious in order to get on top of it. Avoidance can actually keep the cycle of anxiety going.

Avoiding things can lead to more and bigger issues Staying away from situations that make you uncomfortable may help in the short-term, but it can also prevent you from learning that it is actually ok and learning techniques to cope. Many people relate that the more they avoided the very situations that made them anxious, the more frightening it became and sometimes, the more irrational their thinking got.

Further to this, avoiding situations will eventually stop you from doing the things that you like and living a fulfilled life. One example is John, who was fearful of public speaking and talking in groups, and for several years he avoided it. Once he faced up to it and tackled the problem, he found that he was sharing much more of his ideas at work and feeling more valued and fulfilled, also he began meeting many more people. Best done one step at a time and in a managed fashion.  Often, confronting these situations seems overwhelming, however when it is tackled one step at a time it seems much more feasible. The key to this is gradually building your way up to more confronting scenarios, and as you progress you will notice your confidence and capability rising with you.

For example, if public speaking makes you feel really nervous, try a more informal and relaxed situation first. Try presenting in a small group meeting, or taking the lead in a discussion at book club or lead trivia at the pub. Once you feel more comfortable, you can take small steps to work towards longer presentations or larger audiences. Throwing yourself in the deep end is not often helpful, but taking small steps up the ladder also builds your confidence gradually and helps eliminate some of the fears.

The Steps to Building your Confidence and Comfort Levels

  • Don’t throw yourself in the deep end – It’s better to take things slow, get familiar and comfortable with the feelings and grow your confidence slowly in these situations.

  • Take your time – This is often a process that takes plenty of patience and time. Don’t expect to feel better instantly. This is about becoming familiar with the feelings and gradually building up your confidence.

  • Use your skills – The recognition, reshaping and relaxation techniques will help you control your anxiety and stay calm when a situation may overwhelm you.


FOURTH STEP TO GETTING ON TOP OF IT – Working on your relationships

Being surrounded by a supportive network is a great way to help you work on overcoming social phobias. By building new networks and establishing new relationships, you may meet people who share the same discomfort or fears. They may also provide you with a supportive environment, somewhere you may feel more comfortable and in turn build your confidence. Here are some ways you can start interacting with others and build your relationships:

Community Classes – Most local councils or adult education centres offer classes in your neighbourhood. This is a great way to meet people with similar interests or passions, and it may also mean you meet some new friends along the way.

Help out Others – Often getting outside of yourself and focusing on the needs of others is a fantastic way to get the best out of yourself. Volunteer at your local council, garden club, or office social club. By engaging with others and also working on a rewarding activity it will give you focus and fulfillment.

Practice your Communication – When meeting new people or working in new scenarios it is a great opportunity to work on your communication skills. Practice using open questions and giving open answers, letting people find out more about you, rather than simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses. It is amazing how much more enjoyable a conversation can be when you let yourself be open to new information and open the door to a longer chat. The more you practice your communication skills, the easier building relationships will be.


 

Some practical things to check on

 

There are some small practical lifestyle changes that can also help your social anxiety and may contribute to an improvement in your mood and general well being. Try incorporating some of these tips into your daily life:

 

  • Get plenty of sleep: Being rested and clear headed is essential to feeling calm and in control. Check your body patterns and address whether you need an earlier night, or try using some relaxation techniques at night to help you ‘wind down’ from a difficult day.

  • Reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake: coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks are stimulants that can get your heart racing, make you dehydrated (dry mouth) and increase anxiety symptoms. Try and reduce your consumption of alcohol as well, as drinking to ease your symptoms will most times make them worse. 
     

For help in addressing and managing your social phobia, or to improve your presentation skills contact us today (07) 3852 2441.
 

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