from Chase: this is a guest post on understanding and
combatting social anxiety, by Will Legend, writer for and founder of
Have you ever wanted to do something, but backed out because you were overcome with the fear of embarrassment? If you have, then you’ve had social anxiety.
Personally, I’ve experienced social anxiety. When I was in school, I hated being called on in class. Sometimes, I’d fumble with my words. Other times, I’d turn red. And when I felt the blood rush to my cheeks, I was even more embarrassed.
Chances are, you’ve experienced some degree of social anxiety as well. Some experience so much fear in certain situations that they grow frightened just thinking about them. For others, it’s not as severe, but still brings about a feeling of insecurity.
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety is the fear of being negatively evaluated by others. Oftentimes, it occurs in situations that are outside your comfort zone – think public speaking. My close friend who has severe social anxiety experiences it when approaching girls. It’s out of his comfort zone, as he’s recently out of a long-term relationship. In his case, he feels nauseous approaching girls. It’s something he tries to avoid at all costs.
There’re different triggers of social anxiety – e.g., you don’t want to be looked at as unintelligent, inadequate, etc., and fears of this happening can trigger your anxiety. But going outside of your comfort zone and wandering into unfamiliar territory is a recurring theme.
There are a lot of activities that can trigger social anxiety in a person. Some of them are out of most people’s comfort zone – for example: public speaking, performing on a stage, or interacting with “important” people. Those are activities that many people don’t perform on a regular basis. Thus, it would make sense to the majority of us that there would be anxiety involved.
However, there are other everyday activities that cause social anxiety, such as meeting new people, making phone calls, using public restrooms, or eating in public. There’s a bunch of variance when it comes to what people are anxious about.
What Causes Social Anxiety?
There’ve been numerous studies done on social anxiety, and the results suggest that high-anxious individuals are more focused on internal cues, such as blushing or increased heart rate, than non-anxious individuals. It’s a vicious cycle – they assume that others can see these cues and will judge them even more negatively, which then amplifies these internal cues even more. For example, a mild increase in heart rate, when noticed, focused on, and worried over, can proceed to turn into an extreme increase. You know, when it feels like your heart is trying to jump out of your chest.
Focusing on internal cues is related to the “spotlight effect”. This effect explains how people overestimate how much other people notice about their appearance and behavior. Sound familiar? Maybe during lunch one day you get a ketchup stain on your crisp white t-shirt and think everyone will notice it. But not everyone does. And even if they do, they don’t judge you as harshly as you’d think.
Internal cues are just part of the picture. High-anxious individuals also focus differently on external cues. Studies have concluded that high-anxious individuals have a tougher time shifting their attention away from social threat cues – for example, a snake or an angry face.
Which makes sense. Have you ever made a speech, and it seemed that everyone in the audience had a look of disgust? This happens to high-anxious individuals, who are more likely to focus on looks of disgust than they are neutral or positive faces. The good news is: it has been proven that this anxiety can be eased over time by focusing on the neutral and positive faces in the same situation!
Further, high-anxious individuals are more likely to interpret ambiguous external cues as being threatening than non-anxious individuals are
What to Understand to Reduce Anxiety
So how do we work towards having less social anxiety? First, we should understand a couple of things:
The “spotlight effect”
Even in embarrassing moments, people aren’t judging you as negatively as you think – not even close. A widely quoted study on the “spotlight effect” involved students and a Barry Manilow t-shirt. A random college student was picked to wear an “embarrassing” piece of clothing (researchers concluded that a t-shirt with a picture of Barry Manilow would be considered sufficiently embarrassing for this college demographic). The student wore the t-shirt in front of his peers, and estimated that approximately 50% of them would notice the person on the t-shirt. However, in reality, only 25% of their peers actually noticed the Barry Manilow t-shirt.
The researchers repeated this study with “non-embarrassing” pieces of clothing – shirts with pictures of Bob Marley, Jerry Seinfeld, or Martin Luther King, Jr. Again, the student would wear this t-shirt in front of his peers, and again estimated that 50% of them would notice the person on the t-shirt. However, this time, only 10% of them noticed.
This study showed that people are too caught up in their own thoughts to even notice something as salient as an embarrassing t-shirt. Truly, we often shine the spotlight on ourselves, even when others do not.
People who are socially anxious remember less about external environments
That’s because people who are socially anxious are so focused on themselves. In social situations, they are in the spotlight. The situation is comparable to holding a mirror right in front of your face – you’ll focus on the mirror and be blind to what’s going on around you.
Women are more likely to have social anxiety than men
Just some food for thought: you may be the shy guy who is overwhelmed by anxiety whenever you approach girls. The flip side of this is that the girls you approach are even shyer, and are often so overwhelmed by anxiety at the thought of approaching guys that they never do. The fact that you have the courage to approach is itself commendable in most girls’ eyes.
What to Do to Reduce Anxiety (Actionable!)
Shift attention away from internal cues and focus on external cues
If there’s one piece of advice from this column that you can put into action, then this would be it. When you’re anxious, stop thinking about what’s going on within your body. Whether it’s blushing, shaking, or sweating, you should divert your attention elsewhere.
For example, say your friend invites you to a party at his place. If you’re anxious about meeting people, then you’d normally be super anxious about putting yourself in this type of party scenario. But this anxiety can be reduced. Focus on things going on in the environment around you. What color are the walls? Is there any interesting décor? Try to notice what people are wearing. Have a conversation with five people and try to remember something about all five of them. Shifting your attention towards the environment, and doing so over and over again, can help you overcome social anxiety in that moment and also in the long run.
When looking at external cues, shift attention away from threatening ones and focus on neutral and positive ones
We’ve discussed that prolonged focus on threatening external cues can cause social anxiety.
It’s more cyclical than anything: social anxiety causes this focus, which in turn causes social anxiety. People who aren’t socially anxious are quicker to move past threatening external cues.
Fortunately, you can reprogram your brain to shift attention quicker to neutral and positive cues. All it takes is repetition. One study showed that after just a single month of training the brain to more quickly shift attention to neutral cues, the subjects’ anxiety levels markedly decreased. Amazing.
Make a public speech and video record it
Or, approach girls and video record the interaction. Watch the recording and examine yourself. What do you notice? Did your face turn red? Did your speaking pace increase? Did your hands or body shake uncontrollably? Chances are, even if you do notice these things, they aren’t nearly as noticeable as you thought they were in real-time. Truth is, your audience will notice it even less. They’ve got a million things going on in their brain at any given moment.
Additionally, recording and watching yourself deliver a speech or presentation drastically improves your speaking abilities. The first time I was recorded was in a communications class freshman year in college. When I watched the tape, I noticed I used the word “like” a TON. During the actual presentation, I had zero realization that that was the case, and, afterwards, I made an honest effort to eliminate my use of that word. The next time I delivered a presentation I again watched the recording, and, sure enough, I had completely eliminated the word “like”. It was magical.
I will say this though: public speaking causes anxiety even in the most experienced speakers. They just are able to overcome their anxiety easier because they’ve “been there before”.
Be genuinely curious about other people
This is something you should be doing whether or not you are socially anxious. Let’s put things in perspective: say you’re making a public speech. Unless you’re a celebrity, no one cares who is delivering the information – they just want the information. Don’t over think what you’re going to say; rather, think about ways you can deliver something interesting or useful to them. The best presentations engage the entire audience by focusing on their needs.
To get rid of anxiety, spend time observing people and observing the environment. As cliché as it sounds, everybody’s got a story. Everybody’s got something you can learn from. The key is to be genuinely interested. Remember: people enjoy talking about themselves.
Another positive of getting someone else to open up is that the spotlight is no longer on you. There’s no pressure on you to keep the conversation moving, as long as the person you’re talking to continues to babble on.
Put yourself in awkward situations
Don’t be afraid to do this. Remember, social anxiety stems partly from being out of your comfort zone. If you are ALWAYS out of your comfort zone, then you won’t feel anxiety even in embarrassing situations. Here are two simple things you can do today that will move you out of your comfort zone:
Go to your local café and try to get a 10% discount on a coffee. Do this with a straight and honest face. Straight up tell the cashier that you’d like a discount. Afterwards, you can tell them that you did it for a self-development course.
Approach three strangers and tell them something embarrassing about yourself.
Try these two things out. Did you experience anxiety? If you did, then reflect over these two situations. Did anything negative happen as a result?
I’d argue that social anxiety isn’t a bad thing. If you have absolutely zero social anxiety that probably means you haven’t stepped outside of your comfort zone enough. Keep in mind that reading this article isn’t a cure for social anxiety. It’s merely a guide. Go into unfamiliar territory, have feelings of anxiety, and fight against those feelings.
Will Legend is a dating columnist
and the founder of DecodeHer. Liked this article? Check out his website
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