Some form of anxiety and nervousness is considered healthy, because it helps us to push forward and to accomplish our goals. However, when a person avoids situations because he or she is afraid of being embarrassed, the fear becomes overwhelming and it can get in the way of daily tasks.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, social phobia is “the extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance situations.” The symptoms can be so severe that they interfere with and disrupt daily life. “The anxiety can interfere significantly with daily routines, occupational performance, or social life.” (www.adaa.org).
I once had client who came to see me for symptoms of anxiety. He reported having trouble making new friends and meeting new people. He was a loner and although he had friends, he shied away from calling to hang out with them because he did not know what to say.
He avoided social gatherings with his girlfriend, who was outgoing and had many friends. She enjoyed dancing, but he felt that he would embarrass himself because he did not know how to dance. He avoided going to the pet park with his dog because that would mean introducing himself to the other pet owners.
He avoided many activities that included a crowd. He dreaded going to his brother’s wedding that was eight months away because he would have to make a toast at the reception and felt extremely nervous.
This is a typical case of someone who has social phobia. It worsens the quality of life, it can be isolating, it can hurt your confidence, and it can rob you from many wonderful opportunities.
So, how can someone with social phobia overcome the fear of embarrassment? I suggest you try the following techniques with your clients who have social phobia.
- Create an exposure hierarchy: Look at what makes you anxious about being in social situations. It may be speaking in front of a class or introducing yourself to a stranger. Look at what is the least intimidating to the most intimidating and assign numbers to each item on your list from 1 to 10—with 1 being the least feared and 10 being the most feared. If you fear introducing yourself to someone new at work, identify which part of being afraid of meeting someone new is least scary and which part you fear the most. Then assign a number to each.
- Use small achievable goals for each item on the list: For example, if you fear meeting someone new at your office, look at your least feared item related to this activity. If it is walking past their desk, do that first. If walking up to them with a friend was ranked as a “2,” do that second and so on until you feel more comfortable doing each item. Once you feel that you have accomplished those items, progress until you reach item number 10, which may be introducing yourself and making small talk. Don’t try to tackle all your fears at once, as this may backfire and cause you to never try again. Take baby steps and don’t push yourself.
- Relax: Learn ways to relax when you are in a social situation. Try breathing exercises, visualization, meditation, and progressive relaxation. Your anxiety and fear cannot hurt you. Try to recognize the physiological symptoms your body is sending you and practice relaxing when you feel them.
- Do not avoid situations: If you are invited to go to the office holiday party, go—even if you really want to bail. Stay with your anxiety and practice some relaxation techniques. If you avoid going to the party, you are only reinforcing your fear of crowds and strangers. Stay at the party for a short time if you want. Maybe your anxiety will not be as intense as you anticipated and you’ll want to stay longer. Just give it a try!
- Get support from friends: Don’t be afraid to lean on people if you need help. If you need to introduce yourself to someone new, ask a friend to role play situations with you. Practice with them. They are there to help and motivate you. They may even give you tips and suggestions that can help you feel more comfortable.
- Prepare yourself: If you have to present at a meeting, make sure you come prepared. Stand in front of a mirror and practice your presentation. This will help you see what you may be doing wrong and it may help you to pick up nervous expressions.
- Calm you mind: Try not to think about what is worrying you or about the worst case scenario. Distract yourself and focus on the positives. Focus on what you have accomplished so far and keep telling yourself that you can do it!
- Challenge negative thoughts: Many sufferers have negative thoughts and are worried about how others are perceiving them. You may start thinking “what if I mess up?” or “what if they don’t like me?” These thoughts prevent you from being yourself in situations and intensify your anxiety. Challenging your negative thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts is a process. Actively stop yourself from saying negative things and replace them with positive statements or affirmations. If you do this often enough, you will eventually believe it.
- Make an effort to attend social activities that interest you: It can be easy to become isolated with social phobia. An important part of overcoming this however is to make an effort and go to activities that you enjoy. It may be easier to start a conversation with someone if they have similar interests to your own. Make an effort to go to social gatherings even if it is for a short while. Go to mosaic class or book club. Find activities that you enjoy and start a conversation with people who enjoy what you do.
- Motivate yourself: It is important to accept that your social phobia will not disappear overnight. You need to stay motivated and determined. Set a goal and stay focused. A future goal may be learning to dance in front of strangers. Setting goals gives you something to work toward to and you will feel great knowing that you accomplished something that you thought was impossible.
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