The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) defines social anxiety disorder as “a marked and persistent fear of one or more social or performance situations in which the person is exposed to unfamiliar people or possible scrutiny by others. The individual fears that he or she will act in a way (or show anxiety symptoms) that will be humiliating or embarrassing.” Some of the most common social fears involve conversing, dating, public speaking, drinking/eating, writing, walking, talking to authority figures or being assertive in front of or with others. A common practice of those with SAD is to avoid uncomfortable settings.
The common thread with social anxiety is that we believe others will think poorly of us. Most of us experience social anxiety sometimes, like when we have to give a big speech in front of people we want to impress or when we are called on to answer a question we don’t know the answer to. For social anxiety to be a disorder it needs severity and considerable duration. It needs to affect our lives in debilitating ways, such as causing us to miss opportunities at work or holding us back from making friends or finding a significant other.
You didn’t do that right
A big fear of people who experience social anxiety is making a mistake and looking incompetent. Often, there is a history of negative scrutiny in socially anxious people’s lives. Perhaps a sibling preyed on their weaknesses or a bully teased them at school. Fear of failing can cause us to avoid certain situations and therefore miss out on parts of life that could give us joy.
I’ve felt a form of social anxiety over the last week. I’ve woken up in the middle of the night, perspiring, heart beating fast and stomach super tight. The first thoughts to come to my mind? People might not like your writing or they might think your book is amateurish. They might disagree with what you wrote. They might give you nasty reviews stating how wrong you are. Did I give enough credit to the people I quoted? Your family is going to read it and they are in it! You might upset someone you love or used to love…
I am not perfect and my mistakes and incompetence are going to be out there for the world to bash.
There are three types of reactions we have when experiencing social anxiety: Physiological, cognitive and behavioral. The physiological effect has to do with our bodies. When we feel ourselves being observed, our fight or flight responses kick in. Our muscles tighten. Our heart rate increases. We perspire. We feel sick to our stomach. We can’t stop this reaction. It’s involuntary. Our nervous system perceives the scrutiny as a threat and prepares to protect the body. The body’s reactions sadly, often lead to more embarrassment and future worry.
My racing heart rate, sweating and knotted stomach exemplify my fight or flight responses. Those are my body’s way of preparing for danger. In my case, the danger is public scrutiny with potential for negative reviews.
Cognitive means thoughts and thought processes. In social anxiety, the thoughts are often about a person’s performance. They usually predict something bad will happen based on their performance. I’m so stupid. I always forget what I’m saying when others look at me. I’ll probably mumble when talking to my boss.
During my night-time worrying not only was my body engaged for battle, my thoughts were also there egging on the physiological response and my spiral of anxiety. People will find things to tear apart in my book.
Behavior is usually something we observe someone doing. A few examples are walking, running, smiling and laughing. There are two parts of the behavioral component to social anxiety: 1. What we do in anxiety-provoking situations and 2. What we don’t do or what we avoid to prevent our fears from taking over.
As I started to worry about the reception of my book, I hesitated to ask others to help promote it. Avoiding further judgment, I got a little paralyzed about promoting it myself. I let myself get distracted by things other than the marketing work.
How to work through fear of making a mistake in front of others
The crux of social anxiety lies in being especially self-conscious and aware of how others are perceiving us and assuming they are or will perceive us negatively.
How can we reduce our levels of anxiety and self-consciousness?
Since our physiological reactions to social anxiety are automatic and we don’t have a lot of control over them, we have to adjust our cognitive reactions and our behavior. Once we work through our thinking and our behavior, the physiological reactions will diminish. This kind of therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT.
Curbing our negative thoughts
To alleviate us from our worries we first need to identify our thinking errors. There are several types of thinking that generally lead to feeling bad. Here is a list of a few of them according to Managing Social Anxiety: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Approach and The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Social Anxiety and Shyness:
- All or Nothing Thinking: Assuming things are right or wrong, success or failures, black or white.
- Disqualifying the Positive: Even when things go right we give credit to someone or something else.
- Emotional Reasoning: We feel strongly that things are bad so they must be bad.
- Labeling: Putting a fixed or global label on something, someone or ourselves.
- Mind Reading: Believing we can read what other people are thinking, usually assuming the worst.
- “Should” Statements: A fixed idea of how someone, something or ourselves should be.
- Post-mortem analysis: Ruminating over what happened or should have happened.
- Spotlight Thinking: Thinking everyone is focusing on us when we do something.
Disputing negative thoughts
Recognize any of these thought patterns? Next time they run through your head, notice and identify them. Then work to dispute them. We dispute them with questions like:
- What evidence do I have that this is the case?
- If what I’m worried about does happen, how detrimental are the real consequences?
- How likely are my fears to happen?
- Isn’t making a mistake part of normal learning and development?
With my fears about publishing my book, most evidence points to positive reviews of my writing. Even if I get naysayers and trolls commenting (I expect them), how big of a deal is it? No one will die. I can try to use their comments as feedback and work to improve. No one is perfect, especially on their first attempt. Despite the inevitable negative comments, I know what I wrote will help others. That gives me a sense of peace.
Behavioral exposure as therapy
At some point, it becomes necessary to face the people or situations that make us anxious. In CBT, the exposure usually starts with easier settings and works up to harder ones. Role playing with a therapist is often a good start.
One nice thing is most anxiety subsides in a situation if you stay in it. Our nervous system works to adjust our physiological reactions to maintain homeostasis (stable body temperature, alkaline levels, breathing pace etc.). This process of adjusting is called habituation.
Practicing what makes us uncomfortable helps with our ease doing the behavior. Repetition makes things feel easier. Our brains are always striving to simplify their work. Neural pathways develop and what was once difficult is now done without much thinking. Consider learning to drive. Muscle memory (Ex. riding a bike) kicks in too after a while. If we have a trusted person observe us practice, they can offer valuable feedback, which can help us improve and thus become even more comfortable.
I am uncomfortable asking others to promote my work. I don’t want to bother them. What if they don’t want to? I feel so annoying and “salesy”. What if they don’t like me or my work?
My publisher gave me a formula for asking for endorsements. They let me ask whomever I wanted. I asked the easy people who most likely would say yes, first. I procrastinated about the harder ones, but eventually did it. I gave myself two days to finish requesting. I work better with deadlines. The next time I have to ask for praise, endorsement, promotion, etc. it will be easier.
Realizing you’re not in control
Worrying about publishing my book is a moot point, in the end, the reactions and reviews are out of my hands. The release date of The Quiet Rise of Introverts: 8 Practices for Living and Loving in a Noisy World is scheduled for October 3rd. This week Amazon shipped my book to all of those who had pre-ordered it. I wasn’t ready for that, but again, things are truly out of my control. I’ll roll with it and try not to get too anxious.
Where does your social anxiety show up? Do you have any thinking errors? How do you dissolve the anxiety?
If you’d like to learn more about social anxiety, order The Quiet Rise now
You’re right on if it cripples someone, Brenda. But careful careful careful … Drugs rarely fix anything.
I have a cousin who was on anti-depressants for quite a long time. She had changed medication. On a Friday, she called her doctor and said it all felt weird. He said don’t worry, it takes time for these things to work.
On Monday, she committed suicide.
My mom is completely lost and sad. Doctors prescribed an anti-depressant. She’s been on it a few days. This morning, she announces (not for the first time … lol) that she wants to commit suicide. This is somewhat old stuff. But I’m taking her off the antidepressant. I just have zero confidence that those help more than they hurt. There are so many disclaimers, and the drug industry takes zero liability for those times when it makes things worse, and can lead to great depression. And suicide.
We are guinea pigs — profitable ones — for the drug industry.
Not everybody can deal with life. I understand. It is a hard life. Some people medicate through TV. Facebook. Gambling. Sex. Alcohol. Drugs. It just is not an easy life. I think the more we encourage each other — and Brenda, you do this with every writing, and with your book (which I am looking forward to getting!). Accepting and seeing who WE are … I think that’s the most difficult task in this world. By the time we explore who we are, we usually have a life that is ‘established’ and secure, etc. And that security and safety can kill us if we’re not careful.
You’re cool, Brenda. I mean really cool. Keep writing, keep asking questions, keep sharing and exploring and encouraging us, to be who really are. I am always grateful for you.
Sorry I’m getting slower with my replies. My life is very full right now, mostly in a good way. My intuition has always said to stay off of medication if I can. My mother was on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. They never seemed to help her. I’ve kind of made it my life’s work to find alternatives to medication. Therapy? Coaching? Exercise? Healthier relationships? Diet changes? Vices and medication seem like the easy route for some, although I know medication is absolutely necessary for others. I guess I always wanted to be in control and responsible for my moods, health, and actions. Expecting a doctor or pill to fix everything seems like handing over the reins or giving up. I’ve definitely considered medication, but I always end up feeling better in a while, after I’ve sought time with friends, or created something or slept better. I’d rather depend on myself or my close relationships than medication. Thanks for sharing your perspective Michael. I always learn something. I’ll keep asking questions and sharing. I don’t think I can stop.;)
I think we have to be very careful about SAD. It’s a ‘disorder’ that didn’t exist all that long ago. The medical / psychiatric industry — and it’s for profit — came up with it. And not long ago, they considered making introversion a ‘disorder.’ Money, money, money.
We may have certain fears, strong fears, intense fears. I do. I’m terrified of rejection, basically. It doesn’t cripple me entirely. I just hate. I am extremely gifted at some things. I struggle terribly with others. More and more, I want to invest my time doing what I’m gifted at. Am I weird? Yes. Different? Yes. Highly introverted? Yes. I could stay at home 90% of the time and be quite content.
Now, if you’re miserable being who you are … maybe you’re not being who you really are. Maybe you’re not happy with your life, your mate, your work. Drugs aren’t going to fix those things. They’ll mask them. Don’t we have enough people on drugs to mask their pain as it is? Find out the source of the pain — I mean really dig for it. And keep digging. For as long as it takes.
I don’t l like crowds of people, at all. I have pretty much a disdain for small talk. I have very low self esteem. I think self esteem is a strange concept, and is overblown, anyway. Criticism absolutely throws me off my rails. I deal with it better now, a lot better. But … I am very careful about who I let in my life. Negative people not wanted, and not allowed.
The flip side of my intense fears and fairly intense introversion, is that I am extremely creative. I am extremely sensitive to everything. And I can write to anything, just about. I cannot allow negative into my world, especially if he or she is someone close to me. I don’t mean I can’t hear people’s worries, concerns, etc. But people who are negative — and especially toward me — no way. I can’t have it.
Our ‘weaknesses’ are usually offset by some strength.
Society focuses on weaknesses — focuses on ‘normal,’ and tries to ‘normalize’ people. People are people. ‘Norms’ are averages. There are people at extreme ends — and because they’re at extreme ends, doesn’t mean they are suffering some disorder. They’re just different. We struggle with different people. We want people to be like us. ‘Be normal.’ I don’t want to be normal. I’m not. I’m glad for it.
Know your strengths. Know what you need to play to your strengths. Stay kind, humble, grateful. And play to your strengths. The world generally wants to tamp down extraordinary and genius. Be with people who see your genius, and believe in you, and want you to be as genius as you can possibly be in your area.
This life is a journey of self exploration, and becoming our real selves — if we take that journey. It’s not easy. It can be incredibly hard. And it’s worth it. I want to live as much as possible being who I really am. That means knowing who I am, first, and picking carefully my work and the people in my life. It’s not easy … and as the saying goes, nothing worthwhile is.
I definitely don’t like the idea of making every slightly non-mainstream trait a disorder. Being different is what makes us interesting and if encouraged, could make us great. I agree we have to figure out who we are first and then choose wisely whom we include in our tribe.
I think a lot of people have social anxiety, but not so many have SAD. If anxiety is crippling and keeps us from living your lives, then it is a disorder that requires real help from a professional.
Thanks for always keeping it real Michael. 🙂