There are three very distinct components to social anxiety. It’s important to understand what they are for several reasons.
1 – To overcome social anxiety, you must identify the types of symptoms you are having. What kinds of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors are you experiencing when you feel that anxiety coming on?
2 – When you understand the different components and have identified which ones you are feeling, it doesn’t feel so overwhelming when you get hit with an anxiety attack anymore. You gain a bit more control because you can begin to look at the anxiety more objectively and you can break it down into smaller parts.
Breaking it down into smaller parts really helped me. Before I knew about this process, my social anxiety felt so overwhelming that I didn’t know where to start. I was experiencing so many feelings and thoughts that I would just try to forget the whole thing because I didn’t think I could ever overcome it. I just didn’t know how to process all the information. It was just too much!
The next time you feel the social anxiety coming on, pay attention to the following three components: physical feelings (uncomfortable sensations), anxious thoughts (predictions/expectations), and behaviors (avoidance).
If you are like me, you have probably experienced some of the following physical symptoms in social situations: racing heart, blushing, sweating, weakness in muscles, blurred vision, shaky voice, nausea, butterflies in stomach, shakiness, dry feeling in mouth or throat, hot flushes, and poor concentration.
Some of us experience only one or two of these symptoms, and some of us experience many. In some, the feelings themselves may be a source of the anxiety and fear. For example, someone who doesn’t want anyone to notice them sweating or blushing may cause that person to become extremely anxious which in turn brings on the physical symptom.
Most of the time, these physical symptoms are not as noticeable as we think. I remember feeling very shaky on occasion and thinking everyone noticed, but the truth was that no one actually noticed. I was so deep in my own thoughts that I over amplified everything.
Socially anxious people feel like everyone can see their symptoms, but it’s usually not as bad as you think.
A few people do have symptoms that are clearly noticeable to others. I for one had intense blushing and it was noticeable. It wasn’t just a feeling of blushing (which many people experience but aren’t really blushing). I looked like in the mirror and looked like a tomato, so I knew it was obvious to all within a 1000 foot radius!
Eventually, the fear of blushing greatly increased my social anxiety to a very high level. I was so fearful of the physical symptom manifesting itself.
Funny enough, there are many people that may experience blushing, sweating, and shakiness but it doesn’t really bother them. So, how is that possible?
The physical symptoms you experience (sweating, blushing, shakiness) are not the problem. You don’t fear the physical symptom, you fear the consequences that these physical symptoms may bring.
It is your beliefs about what the physical sensation that is the underlying issue.
Eventually, I learned that if I stopped caring if people notice my blushing, I became less anxious. The more I practiced this, the less often I actually experienced the physical symptom (blushing). This works for any type of physical symptom.
I will admit, this is not easy to do. It took me a long time to really stop caring what people thought when they saw me blushing. I had setbacks, but eventually you get to the point where you really don’t give a shit anymore. You have bigger and better things to do than worry about your silly blushing.
One last note on physical symptoms. On a purely physiological basis, your body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement. What differentiates the two are the thoughts you are experiencing. Your body is pumped up and the only difference is the context that your mind creates to go along with that emotion. This brings us to the next major component of social anxiety – thinking.
Your belief system dictates much in the way you react to stimuli. It is your interpretations of events that really cause your reaction. This can be illustrated by looking at how two people have a different response to the same event.
Let’s say you ask a girl for her number and she says yes. You call her a couple days later and leave a message. She doesn’t get back to you within the next couple days.
How would you react? What would you be feeling?
Would you start to doubt yourself? Would you start to think she doesn’t like you and you basically blame yourself for the whole thing?
Now, another guy, Mike, asks a different girl for her number and she says yes. He does the same thing – calls her a couple days later and leaves a message.
Same thing happens, she doesn’t get back to him right away. The difference here is that Mike doesn’t blame or doubt himself. He comes up with alternate possibilities as to why she hasn’t called him yet. Maybe she is super busy or traveling or maybe she lost her phone. There are thousands of possibilities, so he doesn’t default to blaming himself.
Who is right? Sometimes our initial beliefs are correct, but sometimes they are grossly exaggerated. In the case above, it is better to adopt Mike’s assumptions. We don’t know why she didn’t call back, so it is best to assume that it could be a wide range of possibilities. Defaulting to “It’s my fault” is a terrible practice.
Those of us with social anxiety are quick to assume that the problem with interpersonal communication lies with us. For example, if you’re talking to someone and they seem uninterested, you may think it is because they don’t like you.
In reality though, it may because they don’t like the topic you are discussing, they are in a hurry, they are also shy or anxious, they are tired, they are feeling sick, they aren’t a conversationalist, they are feeling stressed, or they are the type of person that always looks bored.
The problem is not the situation, it is how you are interpreting it. You are probably interpreting it as threatening or you think something bad is going to happen. A lot of us with social anxiety hold some core beliefs that need to be re-evaluated. Do you identify with any of the following?
- Everyone has to like me
- If I make a mistake, it means I’m a failure
- If I make a mistake, people will be mad at me
- If I make a presentation, I will mess it all up
- Anxiety is a sign of weakness
- People know when i’m nervous
- I should try and hide my anxiety and not show it in front of others
- People are generally untrustworthy and judgmental
- If one person dislikes me, it means I am unlikable
- People should always be interested in what I’m saying
- If I get rejected, I deserve it
- If someone talks bad about me behind my back, it means I’m a loser
- It will be terrible if I shake, sweat, or blush in front of others
- People think I’m boring, weird, lazy, stupid, etc.
Do you believe any of the common beliefs above? Be honest with yourself. Many of us with social anxiety and shyness hold these core beliefs. We have let these beliefs go unchecked for a long time and it is time we face them, challenge them, and change them. They are not serving you, they are holding you back.
The last component of social anxiety is behavior based. There are certain things we do in the face of a potentially anxiety inducing event in order to feel safer. These are sometimes referred to as safety behaviors. We either avoid the situation all together or we do something to reduce the anxiety quickly. Some of these work really well in the short term, but they are not good in the long run.
In the long run, these avoidance and distraction techniques (safety behaviors) keep you locked into your social anxiety condition. By avoiding the very things that make you anxious, you are actually reinforcing the fear of that situation. Additionally, when you avoid a potential anxiety inducing scenario, you will never discover that the terrible things you imagine will happen are actually very unlikely to occur.
Do you do any of the following safety behaviors?
- Declining invitations to parties
- Avoiding eye contact
- Never participating in class
- Making excuses on why you can’t meet up with friends
- Distracting yourself from anxious thoughts
- Getting buzzed before meeting a friend or going to a party
- Wearing make up or turtleneck to cover up blushing
- Sit in the darker corner of the room during meetings or parties
- Reduce the lighting when giving presentations (so they don’t focus on you)
- Offering to help clean up to avoid socializing (at parties, get togethers, etc.)
- Arriving late or leaving early for meetings in order to avoid small talk
How the Three Components Feed Off of Each Other
Your anxiety can start with any of the three components (physical, thoughts, behaviors) and they usually all reinforce each other.
For me, it usually started with a physical component. I would begin to blush (for no reason sometimes) which got my mind racing (thinking component), which led to more physical symptoms, and then eventually I would leave the situation (behavioral component). Let me break it down a bit to illustrate what was happening.
I would be talking to someone and then feel a slight sense of blushing. That made me think, “hey, why are you blushing? What are you hiding?” I would wonder if anyone noticed that I was blushing. I would have all kinds of anxious thoughts which induced my physical reaction. My body would think, uh oh, he is anxious, there must be a threat. I would begin to panic and then my body would go into flight or fight mode. At that time I would try to get out of the situation anyway I could (leaving the room, distracting myself, etc.).
For others, it may start with your thoughts. This has also happened to me from time to time. Again, I would be talking to someone or giving a presentation, and then boom – I’m hit with just one tiny anxious thought and before I knew it, it was spiraling out of control into physical and behavioral components.
It would start out quite small. It would be a typical thought that most people have from time to time – don’t lose your place in your speech. Most people have that thought, but I would attach a very negative connotation to it – people will think you’re incompetent if you lose your train of thought mid speech.
My interpretation of the consequences (people will judge me and think I’m dumb if I lose my place) led to increased anxiety. As a result of the increased anxiety, I would start to feel flushed in the face. Then I would think, oh no, now people are going to see that I have not only lost my place, but i’m also extremely nervous and anxious. They will think I’m weak (again, another inaccurate assumption/interpretation).
These two components (thoughts and physical feelings) played off of each other until I got to the point where I would rush through the speech or read it word for word so I don’t mess up (behavior component).
Lastly, for some, it may start with the behavioral component. Since you avoid situations, you start to believe the idea that there is something to fear in these situations. The more you put off certain social situations, the more likely you are to have uncomfortable feelings (physical component) and anxious thoughts (thinking component) about them when the time comes. The longer you put it off, the more difficult it is to overcome those feelings when you actually decide to do it. Don’t worry though – it can still be overcome no matter how long you have been avoiding the situations you fear!
Now that you have a good understanding of the three components of social anxiety, you can begin to examine your own behaviors, thoughts, and physical feelings when confronted with anxiety.
The combination of all three components at once can be very overwhelming, so again, break it down into its three components and you will feel more control over the situation. You will be able to take a step back and evaluate which component is starting this vicious cycle. From there, you can dig deeper and figure out how to tackle the problem at the root.
The next time you encounter a feared social situation, write down the time, place, and situation. Next, write down your level of fear from 1-100. Next, write down any physical feelings, anxious thoughts, and anxious behaviors you are having. See the attached monitoring form from the Oxford Clinical Psychology Website for guidance.
Now that you understand how social anxiety works, let’s move onto your specific type of social anxiety. It’s time to conduct a self-assessment and get to know your social anxiety.