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