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 and my anxiety 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 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. I would also avoid eye contact and just wanted to escape.
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 felt part of it.
I had basically developed social anxiety, not because I feared people, but because I found conversations so difficult. Through my avoidance behaviour, my mind then started to associate people as something to avoid, 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.
A lot of social anxiety comes from people not feeling uncomfortable in who they are or not as good as the person they are talking to and so it becomes a test, a trial to impress and a lot of thoughts of ‘How am I doing? , ‘Do they like me?’ ‘Do they notice how I am feeling?’ this inner dialogue can really affect the conversation, it no longer feels like a conversation, but a way of proving ourselves and a lot of people pleasing behaviours can be present.
When my social anxiety began to improve
When I finally built up my understanding and found the answers to the way I was feeling, a lot of my symptoms began to leave me and I was able to mix a bit better, but 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, my 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 was so much habit and memory at work, but there had been a time when I was not like this and I just had to reverse the process back to the old me.
What I began to do
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 – avoiding! 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, you have to retrain your brain to learn that there is nothing wrong here”. So I began to talk to him and it went quite well, not perfect by any means, but once I just relaxed into it, it was not as bad as I thought. I had for once not run away or made excuses to rush off. I mean, what could be so bad about talking to someone?
The answer was ‘nothing’. If I felt odd or distant from now on, then so be it, I would no longer care. I would not run away from a social situation again, however 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, that I was fine, I had to crack into my sub-conscious and break down old pathways and build up new ones.
My first steps
One of the biggest realisations 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, which means being tricked by believing I was truly in danger and the same thing would continue to happen, in fact by avoiding, then I was strengthen this reaction, it was becoming a deeper habit. Or I could see it was nonsensical, that there was no real danger here and override my minds reaction by staying, feel uncomfortable yes, but also start the process of reversing this habit, this reaction.
There were times when I would start a conversation and try to distract myself, sometimes by watching the TV or pretending to text on my phone, anything to avoid eye contact, but I had to snap myself out of these habits, I did not have to follow my mind’s reaction any more, I needed to take control and teach it that I was fine. The anxious feelings may hit at first. That was fine and only natural; they would subside. But by staying and no longer running away, even with this fear reaction present, I was finally beginning to reverse this process.
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. The new habit had become me and without the fear response, then there was no longer an instinct to retreat. I was back in charge.
The initial social anxiety had come through a mind reaction and habit that I had created myself and the only way to reverse it was to just put myself back out there and if ever I felt like pulling away in future, I would actually do the opposite and go towards it, I would not be tricked into old habits again.
If I had carried on avoiding I would still be in the same hole now. I think I just wanted to wake up one day and find it was not a problem anymore. I wanted to just magically wake up and be able to chat freely with people again without any problems. Well, I waited too many years for that day. Only one person could help me and that was me. Avoidance had been my jailer for so long until I regained control and became the person I once was.
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, you just have to take the first steps, be brave, patient and the rewards at the end will be huge.