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May 25, 2018 - Welcome Guest!

Advice » Personality

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Social Anxiety

Question:

Please help me! I'm young and filled with so much life, but when I am around others I feel intimidated and just clam up like hermit crab. I avoid eye contact, fumble over my words, sweat, my breathing increases and quite frankly. I believe that this problem stems from past hurts such as negative social experiences and an abusive relationship.

What can I do to get my security and confidence back? Please, I'm in dire need.

Narly, 22-year-old woman

Answer:

What you are describing sounds like social anxiety. You are right when you say it is a result of negative social experiences and an abusive relationship. You have learned probably to be afraid of others, to expect cruelty or criticism and lack confidence in your ability to defend yourself appropriately. What you learned you can unlearn, overcome your fears and enjoy life. It takes time so do be patient.

First to define and understand what social anxiety is: Social anxiety is an excessive often unrealistic fear of social interaction. Generally people with this type of anxiety have a voice inside them (often unconscious) that is constantly watching what they say, straining every nerve to detect how people react to them. They fear being judged by others, doing things that will embarrass them. This fear can be so intense that it interferes with their lives, with work, with making friends, etc. They may avoid anything that triggers this fear. Even though they may realize the fear is irrational, they are unable to overcome it. The fear may center on one type of event or be so large that the person feels safe only alone. Physical symptoms are common such as dizziness, trembling, nausea, inability to speak clearly, and a fear of losing control. Underlying this anxiety is often a fear of who we are and also how we expect others to react to us (ex. harsh, critical).

Since the fear underlying social anxiety is often unconscious, it is important to bring these fear-provoking thoughts to the surface so you can deal with them. There are three important ways of thinking that influence social anxiety. They are: 1) Your expectations of others: do you believe people will be critical, judgmental, or aggressive towards you? Can you imagine people being kind, compassionate instead? 2) What are your expectations for yourself? Are they realistic? Too high? 3) Are you able to defend yourself? Do you fear that if you express discontent or anger people will reject you?

It is not easy to discover your automatic thoughts. Cognitive therapy can help. You can either try it on your own by getting books from the bookstore/library or else find a therapist. Group meetings for shyness/social anxiety are very useful as well. There are usually a few groups in most large cities. I had one client who went to a Toastmasters group and that helped. It is good to keep a workbook/journal while going through changes.

Here are 5 steps that can help you gain a greater understanding of your inner voice. The aim is to seek out that inner critical voice, examine it, see where it comes from and answer it back. Your aim is to create a belief in your capacity to defend yourself:

1. Describe one situation where you felt anxiety (fear) with people.
2. Close your eyes and write down the first thoughts coming into your head no matter how absurd they may be. Example: "I am an idiot, they must think that I am a creep. I should not have said that", etc.
3. Imagine now a friend or someone else acting the same as you had. Would you speak to them in this manner? ("You are an idiot, etc.")? What would you say to them? Example ("So you made a mistake, not a big deal, everyone does. We still care about you.")
4.List your "shoulds" and try to see where they came from (parents, media, peers, etc.)
5.Time to answer back. Example, for "I should always be thoughtful", you can answer with "I will try and be thoughtful with people but not to the point of being taken advantage of. If I have a headache I may not be so thoughtful."

It is hard to learn to accept oneself if you did not feel accepted as a child or love was conditional. If you had a parent or a boyfriend who was critical that does not mean that others will be and if they are, you do not need to accept it. Remember you can tell people how you want to be treated. It can be by words or even a look. This is important in overcoming social anxiety. No one is perfect and human. It is important to be kind to oneself and forgiving of one's faults, the same as you would do for a friend or a child.

This question was answered by Gloria Rivkah Horowitz M.S.W. She is a Clinical Social Worker with a private practice in Ottawa, Canada. She uses a combination of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy and relaxation techniques in her therapeutic approach. Issues that are dealt with vary from emotional problems stemming from childhood traumas to crises stemming from recent events (ex. divorce). Telephone and face-to-face counseling are provided.

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