If you’ve read part 1 and part 2, I hope they have been helpful in learning more about social anxiety and the complexity of its nature. This will be the last post in this series, which will focus on overcoming social anxiety and meeting people.
Social anxiety shares psychological avoidance properties with other phobias. Basically, the more a person avoids a situation that creates anxiety, the more it reinforces the idea that this situation must be avoided in order to ensure safety.
The longer you avoid a behavior, the tougher it is to make yourself do it again. This brings two points:
1) if you’ve avoided social engagement for a period of time, breaking the chain is important, otherwise the desire to stay removed will continue to intensify; and 2) If you try to socially engage and get “knocked down” (things don’t go as well as you hoped, etc.), it is important to get back up and keep at it, even though the urge will be to further avoid.
While conquering social anxiety can seem daunting at first, once you get yourself into a good rhythm, it will hopefully start to build on itself (if it isn’t, then there’s more to explore in a therapy setting about what’s blocking movement forward). At first, the most difficult part to conquer is allowing yourself to experience a bit of vulnerability in order to take the emotional risks necessary to move forward.
Exposure therapy is a common treatment method in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The idea is to go step by step, taking small and manageable risks to work towards a goal. For example, if your goal is to be able to go to a bar and comfortably approach people for conversations, and we’re starting from a point of not having been out socially in two years, a good starting step could be to just literally get dressed in the clothes you would wear out, without actually going out (the best starting point is generally where the first bit of resistance or anxiety shows up).
When that step is comfortable, then another step is added, and so on. Eventually, you’ll be saying “hello” to people and striking up conversations.
Social practice is really just a way of learning to talk to people you don’t know. If you find yourself in line at the grocery store or elsewhere, try talking to the people in line around you. Have a couple of topics ready, or observe something in the environment that you can chat about. At first this will seem scary. Even just a smile at the person next to you could be a good start.
This is another CBT method that could feel a bit threatening for some. Flooding is essentially immersion therapy, where you’re thrown into the fire. The premise is that you put yourself directly into the situation that you fear, and eventually the anxiety will subside. Although this can cause a great amount of discomfort at first, the anxiety eventually will “run out” and you will become comfortable if you wait it out.
But, if you’re going to practice flooding, it’s important to stick with it. If you remove yourself from the situation in the midst of high anxiety it could backfire by reinforcing the idea that you can’t do it. With flooding, either commit to doing it and seeing it through, or don’t do it at all.
This is a good list to keep with you when you’re going into a social situation until you’re more comfortable on the go. Create a list of conversation topics. Current events are good, but also include questions to ask the other person about themselves. One of the things that’s tough about small talk for people is that it stays on the surface emotionally, and often can run out fast unless common ground is found. Allow yourself to bring up topics that show interest in a person’s life.
Therapy is an important component of conquering social anxiety. While a very determined and motivated person could possibly conquer their social anxiety merely through behavioral changes, it’s not always as linear as this, as there is an emotional process happening simultaneously that plays a role in how we manage those behavioral strategies. Therapists can help to identify the root of the anxiety you feel, while also offering the emotional support necessary to manage the fears and resistances that can appear along the way. Part of conquering any phobia is first the ability to talk about it and recognize its nature and work through the deeper obstacles.
The above suggestions are only a small sample of methods for social anxiety. To be sure, conquering your fears will take some motivation and effort. I hope this series has been a helpful intro for you — and remember, it is possible to overcome this.