Help with Overcoming Social Anxiety
My own story of overcoming social anxiety
The symptoms of social anxiety are covered on the ‘Anxiety Explained‘ page. Here I want to share my own story of how I managed to overcome social anxiety, as so many people can become socially crippled when meeting and talking with others.
Before I suffered from anxiety I was a very happy and confident person. Social situations never bothered me in the slightest. I would not say I could talk in front of a thousand people, but generally, I was pretty confident and had little trouble with social situations.
When anxiety first hit me, I worried continuously about what was causing the sensations I was feeling. I thought deeply, day in, day out, trying to figure a way out of my own personal hell. With this extra worry and stress on my already tired mind and body, I began to feel more anxious than ever. Not only that but by being so concerned about myself daily I was beginning to feel detached from my surroundings, as my inner world and anxiety just consumed me.
This feeling of detachment made it very hard for me to hold a conversation and I became very self-aware, distant and felt odd. I would hardly be listening to or engaging in the conversation and would feel quite detached from it, which led to me either wanting to run away from the situation or babbling on as I tried to hide how I felt. All I wanted to do was get it over with and I used to get some very strange looks at times.
Because of this, I started avoiding people and I was perceived as ignorant more than once. I don’t blame people for this perception of me and as far as I was concerned that was far better than having to go and talk to others. I just found it so difficult to hold a conversation and I never enjoyed it or felt part of it.
I had basically developed social anxiety, not because I feared people but because I found conversations so difficult. Through my continued avoidance behaviour, my mind then started to associate people with something to fear as it was just responding to the signals I was sending it.
Again, my mind was innocent in all of this. It was just doing what it was designed to do and was protecting me from what I had been avoiding for so long, thinking that because of my actions, that there was danger in being around others.
I also think that another reason for my social anxiety was that I never felt comfortable in my own skin. With what I had been through I had not only lost confidence, but lost, who I truly was and so when talking with others I felt very un-genuine like I was constantly playing a role. This role became increasingly difficult and exhausting to keep up and was another reason I avoided social interaction.
A lot of social anxiety comes from people not feeling comfortable in who they are, which can then lead to them thinking they are not as good as the person they are talking to and so it becomes a test. It can feel like a trial to impress and a lot of thoughts can come up like ‘How am I doing? , ‘Do they like me?’ ‘Do they notice how I am feeling?’ this inner dialogue can really affect the conversation, as it no longer feels like a conversation but a way of proving ourselves and so a lot of people pleasing behaviours to gain acceptance can be present.
When my social anxiety began to improve
When I finally built up my understanding and found some answers to the way I was feeling then a lot of my symptoms began to leave me and I was able to mix a bit better, although conversations on some level continued to be hard work.
Depending on who I was around, I still felt odd and not part of them, not as much as I once did, but in my mind, they were still something to be avoided. I just thought it was something I would have to live with and turned down a few social invites where I knew I would have to speak with people.
I never even considered it was a form of social anxiety at the time as I did not have the sweating and blushing symptoms that I had read so much about. I did not mind people, I just found it so difficult to hold a conversation and make eye contact without the feelings of detachment and feelings of self-awareness, I honestly thought I struggled to speak to people because of how I felt and not because I suffered from any kind of social phobia.
As others who know me will tell you, I never wanted to settle for just getting through with safety behaviours and I had to get to the bottom of why I felt this way. I first realised it was social anxiety by understanding the simple truth that it was social situations I struggled with.
This was brought on by me avoiding people because of how I felt – my thought pattern at the time was ‘Don’t speak to people and you won’t feel anxious and detached, you won’t make a fool of yourself and look stupid; far better to avoid the situation’ – WRONG!
This went on for years as I had taught my subconscious mind to see people as something to be avoided. As soon as I saw a person I may have to speak with then my mind’s reaction was instant: “Oh no, here we go again, quick get it over with”. It was precisely this attitude that I had to overcome. Nothing would ever change while I was thinking like this, consciously or otherwise.
I had to begin to no longer see meeting people socially as a problem and, more than anything, this had to start with no longer caring if I came across as anxious and detached, as this really was at the root of my problem. This was not going to be easy as there were so much habit and memory at work but there had been a time when I was not like this and so I just had to reverse the process back to the old me.
What I began to do to be socially free again
Firstly I had to see through these faulty thoughts that were causing so much avoidance and bring true awareness to them. I had to truly realise that my minds thoughts on myself and others were totally false. I wasn’t any less important than anyone else and that other people were not something to be avoided.
My thinking was at fault here, nothing else. So it was a case of firstly seeing through the faulty thinking and then no longer following it. So the faulty thoughts were fine to come through habit but I would no longer put belief into them and so would no longer be fooled or run by them. I had to take charge here and see through and override my faulty thinking patterns.
I actually remember the first time I decided to stop avoiding and hit the bogeyman head on. It came when I was meeting a friend in a pub who had brought someone with him. After a quick hello, my friend went to the toilet and left me with his friend. This was my ultimate nightmare; being left with someone I did not know and no one to help keep the conversation going. I was on my own!
So off I went making my usual false excuse to go elsewhere when the light came on. I was doing it again, listening to my faulty inner dialogue and attempting to avoid! This behaviour would never change if I kept this up.
Only one person could reverse this and that was me. So, I actually turned around and thought “Sod it, I am doing this? It’s a person, not a bleeding lion” and went against my automatic reaction to escape and began to talk to him and it actually went quite well. Not perfect by any means and there was some anxiety present, but once I just relaxed into it then it was not as bad as I imagined it would be.
For once I had not run away or made excuses to rush off and I felt a lot of elation that for the first time I had gone against an old pattern of thinking and made my own decision. I had finally looked at the bigger and not the short-term one.
At that moment I realised that this old reaction would only ever turn into a new reaction through a change in behaviour and that this may take some time. I did not get into this position overnight and I certainly wouldn’t get out of it overnight.
I realised that all I had done before to overcome this was wait for some miracle day where I would be fine, a day that was never going to come. I also realised that overcoming this would never come through knowledge alone, to overcome this I had to put myself in the very situations I had spent years avoiding.
I decided there and then that if I felt anxious or distant in the presence of others from now on, then so be it, I would no longer care. I would not run away from another social situation again and just accept that it went how it went. I was going to reverse this process come what may.
If avoidance got me in this hole, then the opposite would get me out of it. I just had to get used to it again and see it as normal, I had to teach my brain that I no longer needed its protection and make it understand that I was fine. I had to crack into my sub-conscious and break down old pathways and build up new ones.
Realisations that helped free me from social anxiety
One of the most helpful realisations I came to was that it wasn’t me that feared people; it was a reaction in my mind. My mind had the fear, not me. So, I could actually watch this fear reaction, identify with it and go with it by escaping or avoiding. This meant being tricked into believing I was truly in danger and the same thing would continue to happen, in fact by avoiding, then I strengthened this reaction and it just built up a deeper habit.
Or I could see it was nonsensical, that there was no real danger here and override my mind’s reaction by staying. I may feel uncomfortable initially as my old fear reaction would come through habit, my brain needed a little more convincing that I was fine. But by no longer following old instincts or listening to my faulty inner dialogue telling me to avoid then it would be the start of the process of reversing this habit, this reaction.
Finally, I was moving forward and teaching my mind that being in the company was normal and no threat. There was nothing to fear or run away from and it was finally accepting that message. While I ran away or avoided the situation, I was sending the message that there was a problem and so the same fear reaction would continue.
I realised the only language my mind understood was my actions, it would always respond to the feedback I was sending it, that it was a survival machine and was just trying to protect me. When it finally realised I was not in danger, then this reaction would be cut off and I would no longer be presented by the fear reaction whilst talking with others.
By following this path, in time, I began to feel far less anxious and far less self-conscious. It was becoming second nature now. I was sending all the right signals to my mind through my actions – “Look, there is nothing to be afraid of. I no longer need your protection. I’m fine now”. If it could speak back, it would of said ‘Yes I getting that now and I’m turning down the fear response for you, but before you were telling me the opposite and I was just doing my job and keeping you safe’ my reply being, ‘I know, sorry it was my fault, I was just uneducated then and was just going by instinct’.
Things just got so much easier and the old me – the person that could chat away freely – was coming back. I had no urge whatsoever to find a quick exit or avoid eye contact and the self-defeating thoughts of escape were no longer present. The new habit had become me and without the fear response, then there was no longer an instinct to retreat and I was back in charge.
I am not saying the above is easy, it isn’t, as every instinct tells you to do the opposite and retreat, that is why the fear reaction is there in the first place, it has that pull to follow it and escape.
But you make these small steps to regaining your freedom, you can allow yourself to feel this reaction within, without running from it, it can’t harm you, it is just a reaction in the mind and an energy shift in the body. If you want to progress in anything then you have to feel uncomfortable to feel comfortable again, are you willing to do that to regain your freedom?
Growth is never a simple path and you may have setbacks along the way, there will be times when you feel uncomfortable. But trust me when you get to the end of it, you become a different person, you are even stronger because of it. Nothing is better than regaining your freedom the right way. You just have to take the first steps, be brave, patient and the rewards at the end will be huge.