Talking About The Social Anxiety Experience

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According to a study from Harvard medical school in 2007 Social Anxiety Disorder Affects over 12% of the United States population, if we do the math that comes out to be about 40 million people. For every nine people we know one of them could be suffering from this mental condition (Harvard Medical School, 2007.)

The funny thing is we probably won’t know many people who have a social anxiety disorder because of the very nature of their condition. Social anxiety goes further than just the disorder. In fact, it’s something everyone experiences to different degrees. As humans, we are social animals and naturally don’t want to be left out of the group. Social anxiety becomes a disorder when there is “a persistent fear of one or more social situations where embarrassment may occur and the fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual threat posed by the social situation as determined by the person’s cultural norms” (National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health).

It’s easy to understand how this kind of anxiety can put a big stopper in our plans. We must interact with people every day and if we don’t know how to deal with and overcome our social anxiety then your chances of getting what you want from any given interaction with a person greatly decrease. How can we overcome social awrnxiety? Through mindfulness of thought, Acceptance of reality, and Exposure Therapy we can significantly reduce the amount of social anxiety we experience.

One of the correlations psychologists have found while studying socially anxious people is their need for control increasing as their anxiety increases. Anxious people seem to be unaccepting of reality and what it is. In other words they want a social situation to go their way so bad that they get anxious it won’t. (Gilbert, 2000). Professor Paul Gilbert suggests this very idea in what he calls Social Rank Theory. Social Rank theory proposes “that both acquisitive and defensive (Anxious) human displays are centered around their desires to gain, and fear of losing, attractiveness in the minds of others” (Gilbert). The Social rank theory is basically proposing that out of fear people try to over-control a social situation and therefore end up anxious because they are not able to. Socially Anxious people are trying so hard to get a desired social outcome that it ends up backfiring.

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So how do we stop being a social control freak? Great question. Based on Gilbert’s social rank theory, one answer is acceptance. One must accept the situation for what it is and might be. To accept a situation, we must recognize we are trying to control it. Then after that we need to reframe our perspective in a way that will show us reality. Socially anxious people may naturally think they have to be perfect or that it’s not ok to just be who they are. Changing our thoughts can help us accept ourselves and the situation. A famous line Theodor Roosevelt said comes to mind when thinking about acceptance he says, “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” This thought facilitates acceptance because it helps us remember that we are only human. Some other questions to ask your self are. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Is that realistic? Can I handle it? When an individual wants to ask another out for a special date they may choose not to out of fear of rejection but if they actually took a second to ask some of these questions they would realize that they could handle the rejection if it occurred and that it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We all are unaccepting of reality from time to time so it’s good to take a deeper look at what is actually happening. A common example of this that you have probably experienced is stage fright When preforming we don’t want to look bad to the audience and therefore start to worry that you will. If we accept whatever outcomes could possibly accrue we won’t be afraid to perform. Accepting the situation by changing our thought pattern is very much like mindfulness meditation which people use to maintain a calm peaceful mind while under social situational stress.

One of the common ways people combat social anxiety of any kind is through mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of your present moment, understand what is happening and what you’re thinking, It often acts to take a step back and stop reacting to every single thought that comes into your head. (Strege) In a study on the effects of mindfulness meditation on social anxiety Philippe Goldin, PhD found that patients “ showed increased self-esteem and decreased anxiety”( Goldin) while practicing mindfulness. In the study people put aside time and practiced being aware of their thoughts for at least 2 hours a day for 6 weeks. The participants did things like listen to their thoughts, listen to mindfulness tapes, and practiced focusing on the present moment. (Goldin) For those who want to use mindfulness to reduce their social anxiety taking some time to meditate daily will help you recognize what’s going on in your mind. The study hypothesizes that the mind is constantly overwhelmed by different thing to do but when one practices mindfulness they no longer must be a slave to the mind, but they can mindfully choose what they really want to focus on which is most defiantly not being socially anxious, (Goldin)

One of the most popular and consistently efficient ways to combat any anxiety is through exposure therapy. Phycologists identify exposure therapy by “which a client enters and remains in a feared situation despite distress” (Rodebaugh) the goal of exposure therapy is to correct the preexisting false beliefs a socially anxious person may have about any given situation. Studies have found that Exposure therapy doesn’t correct existing beliefs as much as make new conflicting beliefs about any given situation. (Rodebaugh) even though this form of therapy is not perfect it is still found to be the most effective way of combating social anxiety. (Goldin) to practice exposure therapy we can do many things, but a common method phycologists use is to have their clients list out all their social fears from most to least scary. Then they have their clients tackle them one by one exposing themselves to the fear just to the point they can handle so they don’t get overwhelmed, but long enough to start to form a more accurate view of the situation. (Rodebaugh) Even you could hold a false belief about a certain social situation say your only experience of working in groups was from high school and in that situation, you were bullied. Your belief of what group interactions are like will be skewed due to the belief you formed from your experience. If it was a bad experience you will now fear to have that situation again. Exposure therapy would say have as many experiences as possible so you can better identify witch beliefs you should hold.

A multi-dimensional approach is the best way for anyone to combat social anxiety. The three methods mentioned in this paper are only a few of the remedies to this issue. If you are serious about overcoming social anxiety don’t only practice acceptance and mindfulness but engage in exposure therapy as well. These different strategies are great and do work but it’s also important to mention in the studies that they tested these methods, the people with anxiety always had a therapist or someone keeping them held accountable. This is a very important step to note because without accountability it can be hard to make consistent progress.

In conclusion, the effects of social anxiety can become extremely detrimental if left unchecked it could even get to the point where someone is afraid to do anything related with other people, to combat this practicing acceptance mindfulness, and exposing yourself to the fear can make your life easier and more comfortable. The research points toward Exposure therapy being the most effective method to reduce social anxiety. (Goldin) but it is suggested to not use this method alone seeing as how it does not fully remove the fear belief from your mind. We all experience social anxiety because we must interact socially with other people and it’s not always the best thing especially when you’re trying to focus on something. So, I challenge you what will you do next time you notice the social fear creeping in? maybe its time to look at reality in a clearer way. Try some of these techniques and see what happens.

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