Your mind races. Your palms sweat. The words don’t come out of your mouth right, if they come at all. We’ve all been there at one time or another. And some of us get it worse than others, and more frequently. Social anxiety.
Nobody wants to look stupid or be embarrassed. But since it’s not like your life is on the line, why is social fear so bad? There’s an answer…
While it’s hard to remember what a broken arm feels like, it’s quite easy to remember all the times you felt mortified in public. So it’s not surprising that research shows social pain is actually worse than physical pain — because you can relive it over and over again:
Individuals can relive and reexperience social pain more easily and more intensely than physical pain. Studies 1 and 2 showed that people reported higher levels of pain after reliving a past socially painful event than after reliving a past physically painful event.
And the old saying is true: often the fear itself is much worse than whatever you’re afraid of. Research shows being afraid you’re going to lose your job can be worse than actually losing your job:
…perceived job insecurity ranks as one of the most important factors in employees’ well-being and can be even more harmful than actual job loss with subsequent unemployment.
And the advice you usually get on how to deal with fear is dead wrong. What happens when you suppress your feelings?
Your ability to experience positive feelings goes down — but not negative feelings. Stress soars. And your amygdala (a part of the brain closely associated with emotions) starts working overtime.
From Handbook of Emotion Regulation:
…experimental studies have shown that suppression leads to decreased positive but not negative emotion experience (Gross, 1998a; Gross & Levenson, 1993, 1997; Stepper & Strack, 1993; Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988), increased sympathetic nervous system responses (Demaree et al., 2006; Gross, 1998a; Gross & Levenson, 1993, 1997; Harris, 2001; Richards & Gross, 2000), and greater activation in emotion-generative brain regions such as the amygdala (Goldin, McRae, Ramel, & Gross, 2008).
But there’s a way to deal with fear and anxiety that neuroscientists, the ancient Stoics and mindfulness experts all agree on. And it’s not that hard. Let’s get to it…
How To Make Fear Less Scary
There are a number of specific techniques for reducing those awful anxious emotions:
- Mindfulness recommends “noting” troublesome thoughts like fear. Recognize and accept them to let them go.
- Neuroscience advocates “labeling.” (Frankly, this is a lot like noting but backed by some PhDs and an fMRI.)
- Stoicism has “premeditation.” That’s when you ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and realize it’s not that bad.
- Neuroscience also recommends “reappraisal.” This is reinterpreting your feelings with a new story that makes them less scary.
A random bunch of tips? Nope. So what do they all have in common?
You gotta use your brain. You gotta think. Some might reply, “I am thinking, I’m thinking about all the awful stuff that could happen if I embarrass myself. In fact, I can’t STOP thinking about it!”
But you’re not thinking. You’re reacting. Fight or flight. Like an animal would.
Look, our ancestors didn’t spend millions of years climbing to the top of the food chain so we could respond the same way a lizard does. We have this shiny new prefrontal cortex and can use it to fight fear.
In fact, you already have and you probably didn’t realize it…
Ever had so much going at once that something which would normally scare you just doesn’t? That’s not random. When your thinking brain — the prefrontal cortex — is highly engaged, it slams the brakes on feelings.
And you can use this trick deliberately. Anything that gets you thinking actively can smother anxiety:
…resources that are used to perform a cognitive task are no longer available for emotional processes. Accordingly, people can rid themselves from unwanted feelings by engaging in a cognitive activity, such as doing math equations (Van Dillen & Koole, 2007), playing a game of Tetris ( Holmes, James, Coode-Bate, & Deeprose , 2008), visualizing scenes such as sitting in a double-decker bus driving down the street (Rusting & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1998), sorting cards ( Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990), responding to colored lights ( Christenfeld, 1997), or filling out bogus questionnaires ( Glynn et al., 2002).
(In fact, this effect is so powerful, I recommend you don’t think too hard when you’re feeling good — because it can suppress those happy emotions just as easily.)
Now we’re talking about social anxiety, and it’s not like you can start doing your taxes at a party to feel less anxious. That’s okay. We can do one better. What should you think about?
Your fears. Yeah, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. “Face your fears.” Actively. With your brain switched to “on.” Neuroscience research shows when we avoid scary things we become more scared. When you face your fears they become less frightening.
From Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges:
Brain imaging findings suggest that extinction may involve a strengthening of the capacity of the PFC to inhibit amygdala-based fear responses (Phelps et al., 2004). Several approaches to treating anxiety disorders such as PTSD and phobias have been shown to be effective in promoting extinction. In essence, these therapies encourage the patient to confront the fear and anxiety head on.
And that’s what each of the techniques I listed do in one way or another: they engage your thinking brain to take over for the emotional brain and get a handle on what you’re feeling. You can try them and see what works for you. Or you can put together a fear-busting cocktail combo to really drop the hammer on that anxiety.
(To learn the 7-step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, now that we understand the underlying brain trickery, let’s look at how each method works so you can crush that social anxiety…
Here’s how to overcome social anxiety:
- Use yer brain: When you’re thinking more, you’re feeling less.
- Note or label: Give the emotion a name and it won’t overwhelm you, Phyllis.
- Premeditate: “What’s the worst that could happen?” It won’t. And it’s not that bad.
- Reappraise: Change the story and your feelings change. Stress can be a challenge. Adversity can be a game.
- Don’t be an opera singer: Me Me Me to You You You to Us Us Us.
In a classic study, researchers had subjects evaluate three job candidates. One had lousy scores, the other was nearly perfect, and the third had the same rankings as the perfect one but during the interview he spilled coffee all over his suit. Guess who they thought most highly of?
The fumbler. Why? He seemed more approachable. He wasn’t so perfect as to make people envious. Being too impressive can backfire. Perfect is too perfect.
So put your brain to work fighting that fear. And get out of your head and into their head. You’re not the only one who feels socially awkward. Help others feel relaxed and you’ll find you relax too. And stop trying to impress…
You don’t need to be interesting. You need to be interested.
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Tips on overcoming social anxiety
For those who have difficulty in unfamiliar social settings, here are a few tips that may ease the anxiety:
- Sharing your anxieties. There is nothing wrong with feeling anxious, but many people feel uncomfortable or embarrassed talking about how they are feeling. The irony is that hiding or suppressing those feelings can make them worse. If you are feeling socially anxious, tell someone you are close to.
- Try a breathing technique. Breathing exercises have been shown to help soothe anxiety, therefore, focusing on breathing can help take your mind off of what is causing your anxiety. Once you control your breathing and focus on slower breaths, your heart rate slows down, as well as your mind.
- Remember that your thoughts are not reality. A challenge we face when it comes to controlling this disorder is remembering that our fears are not reality. Your mind is a powerful tool, and it can trick you into believing things that aren’t true. If you are experiencing anxiety, try and remember that your fears are imaginary. Of all the things you have feared, 99.99% of those fears came true.
- Shift your attention. Since anxiety is good at consuming your thoughts, focus on other things to distract yourself. For example, read a book you enjoy, get outside and enjoy nature, or try a new coffee shop that interests you.
- Face your fears. Exposure therapy can also be helpful to overcome social anxiety. One of the biggest benefits of facing your fears is seeing how small and irrelevant they have been all along.
- Don’t worry about being perfect. Remember, perfection is not real. It is just an abstract concept. By letting go of the need to be perfect, you allow yourself more room to be your self in everyday life.
- Go out of your comfort zone. Trying new things, or doing things that normally would make you uncomfortable is a great way to overcome this disorder.