If you feel butterflies in your stomach before going on a date or speaking in public you do not suffer from social anxiety disorder, also called social phobia. Social anxiety disorder is a chronic mental condition where you experience irrational fear, self- consciousness or embarrassment when you are exposed to a social event such as a party or even in your everyday workplace. People who suffer from social anxiety disorder fear that other people may judge them in a negative way.
One of the dangers of social anxiety disorder is that people may become addicted to alcohol or other forms of substance abuse to help them cope with social situations. Unfortunately, it is a well-known fact that alcohol consumption can actually worsen the anxiety associated with social phobia and not relieve it.
If you suffer from social phobia you will probably start worrying about an anticipated social event long before it even occurs, and your worries may interfere with your everyday life such as your work performance and even your private life. It may also cause you to avoid certain situations like eating, drinking or talking in public. You may find it hard to either make or keep new friends.
Social phobia, or social anxiety disorder, can be successfully treated with psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy. The aim of cognitive behavioral therapy is to help you change your way of thinking about yourself, people and situations so that you may regain control of your emotions during social events. Exposure therapy helps you to gradually get used to social situations. Exposure therapy can incorporate a support group of other people also suffering from social phobia, where you can learn basic social skills without having to worry about being judged.
Depending on the severity of your social phobia you can also try some self-help techniques at home. It should however be mentioned that for the best long term results you should consider the help of a qualified therapist. Some self-help techniques are discussed below.
Slow breathing exercises
The aim of slow breathing exercises is to counteract your body’s fight and flight response and to help you relax. You should exercise these breathing techniques at home and then when you are in a stressful social environment try to reproduce them.
Inhale while slowly counting to three and then exhale slowly counting to three. Expand your diaphragm (abdomen) while breathing in rather than your chest. This will help you to use your lungs to their full capacity. As you breathe out, concentrate on the word “relax” and feel all the tension in your muscles disappear with the air you breathe out. Continue with this exercise for 5 minutes 4 times a day while you are feeling relaxed.
In social situations you should concentrate on breathing like you did during these 5 minute exercises. Breathing deep and comfortably during social events should soon become second nature.
Challenge negative thoughts
A negative thought usually occurs when you presume you know what people are thinking, based on their facial expressions, body language, comments and so forth. The first thing you should do is to become aware of these negative thoughts and challenge them with alternatives. Think of a negative thought you had during a prior social event like “He is looking me up and down so I must look stupid in this dress.” Is that the only reason why someone would look you up and down?
The alternative reaction would be: “Perhaps they like the dress or they think I look pretty in it”. If you get into the habit of challenging negative thoughts before, during and after a frightening social event you will find that they tend to become less.
Face your giants
You don’t need to wait to go for exposure therapy before trying it on your own. You can practice scary situations like telling a joke, sharing your opinion or making a speech with people you trust like family or friends.
Make a list of scary things that you necessarily won’t do in a social environment. Make sure that they differ in difficulty and arrange them from the “easiest” to the more difficult ones. Then start with the easiest one of the scary things, for example eating in public. First go and eat out with a family member or friend, then if you have accomplished this consider asking a long time work colleague (preferably of the same sex to not make it scarier than it should be) to go and eat out with you.
Once you have achieved this, move on to the next slightly more difficult action and start doing it with a trusted family member or friend first before involving someone less familiar like a work colleague. Repeat each exercise until you feel comfortable and confident enough to move onto the next one.
You may of course become anxious, but challenge your negative thoughts and breathe like mentioned to help you relax in the social situation.
There are also other small gestures you can make to reach out to people without having to expose yourself too much.
Try making eye contact, and either return peoples’ greetings or greet them first. Give someone an honest compliment or ask them about their family, their home or their other interests such as sports or hobbies. Ask directions from someone you don’t know or ask a sales person to help you find an item you are looking for.
The more you practice these small tasks the more comfortable you will become around people.
Cuncic, Arlin. “Self-help for social phobia.” About.com. 2012. About.com. (November 22, 2012) http://socialanxietydisorder.about.com/od/selfhelpforsad/a/selfhelp.htm
“Social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Lifestyle and home remedies.” Mayo Clinic. 2011. Mayoclinic.com. (November 22, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/social-anxiety-disorder/DS00595/DSECTION=lifestyle-and-home-remedies