“So, will we see you at the office Christmas party?” A seemingly innocuous question, and yet for the social anxiety sufferer, a potentially panic attack-inducing nightmare. And the festive season is rife with situations like this one. Family gatherings, office parties and various festivities are sources of agonising anxiety for those with social phobia, and facing them is often too much to bear.
Often the only course of action left for sufferers to take is avoiding these events and hide away from facing them.
But if you or a loved one is experiencing this, you should know that avoidance begets more avoidance, and is more harmful than helpful. And while anxiety and the resultant depression can feel overwhelming, one of the steps towards overcoming it means facing up to avoidance behaviour and saying, “No more!”.
If you or a loved one suffers from social anxiety, you’ll understand firsthand how tempting it is to hide away and avoid your fears. And if it’s a loved one who struggles, like a spouse, sibling or child, it sometimes seems kinder to enable avoidance behaviour than to force your nearest and dearest to do something you can see terrifies them. And yet, it’s the facing of these fears that helps teach sufferers to cope and overcome their difficulties. By enabling avoidance behaviour, even out of love, you assist the suffer in reinforcing their fears.
Of course, this doesn’t mean taking an aggressive approach and forcing them to do things that frighten them either. Rather, it means gently and supportively encouraging them to try things that scare them or provoke their anxiety while standing by as a pillar of support. And if you are the social anxiety sufferer, this means finding someone who will encourage and support you as you face your fears. Maybe it’s a parent, a sibling or a trusted friend. Share your struggles with them and ask them to help you be accountable for overcoming your social anxiety.
Social anxiety sufferers are no strangers to the terrifying ruminations about an upcoming event that can start to occur weeks before the time. These thoughts are often of a catastrophic “worst-case scenario” nature and can induce panic and high levels of anxiety way before you’ve even had a chance to attend the event in question. Of course, by the time it does roll around, you’ve convinced yourself quite thoroughly that you’re doomed, and the worst will happen.
It’s important to remember that these thoughts are very skewed in perspective, and certainly don’t represent reality. After all, we can’t tell the future, and the likelihood of your fears materialising is very slim – and even if they did, the subsequent fallout is most often far less agonising that you think it will be. But as any anxiety sufferer knows, winning the battle in your mind is a challenge not easily overcome. But, it is possible to prepare yourself for an event.
The secret is allowing yourself to think about the anxiety-inducing event at times when you are feeling relaxed and safe. Maybe it’s while lying in a bubble bath, or sipping tea in your garden. When you think of the thought and begin to feel anxious, return to the relaxing state you are in. Breathe deeply. By allowing yourself to experience the idea of what makes you anxious when you are relaxed, you start allowing your brain to associate those thoughts with being relaxed and rob them of some of their power.
If you or your loved one struggle with social phobia, it’s important not to set yourself up for disappointment by expecting you can fix everything overnight. Truly overcoming your anxiety takes time and is a lengthy process. The key to succeeding is being proactive but gentle with yourself. Keep taking small steps forward in facing your fears, and you will get there. But if you experience a setback or two, remember all the successes, however, big or small, that you’ve already had in working on beating your anxiety. It’s important to stay encouraged as you work on your anxiety.
It may seem counterintuitive to do what terrifies you, but exposure to your fears does work. Every time you face your social anxiety and do something that frightens you, you desensitise your brain to the fear and make strides in overcoming it. This does not mean you should rush off and sign yourself up for The Voice, or decide to make an impromptu speech in front of 150 of your coworkers.
Instead, it’s those small steps that all add up to making a massive difference. Maybe it’s deciding to go to that party that terrifies you, or choosing to make small talk in the office with a few new colleagues, even when it scares you. Look for opportunities to push the boundaries of your comfort zone. And remember, no avoiding!
When you’re in the throes of anxiety, you tend to turn your focus inwards. This magnifies what you’re feeling and makes your anxiety even worse. When you’re exposing yourself to your phobia by doing something to challenge your fear, use your senses to keep you grounded in the present moment. What do you see, hear or smell? What interesting things can you use in your surroundings to take your focus off of your fear? Staying in the moment helps you recognise and acknowledge your fears without spiralling into catastrophic thinking about what might happen in the future.
Practising mindfulness meditation is a helpful way to learn this skill, so if you have never considered taking it up, maybe it’s time to give it a try? There are apps, like Calm, which can be used to help learn how to be more mindful. Alternatively, you can also get in touch with a therapist who can help you be more mindful by way of exercises and techniques.
At times it may seem like you’re taking more steps backwards than forward, but bear in mind that persistence does pay off. And if you keep confronting your social anxiety, you will make strides towards overcoming it.
That said, it’s always a good idea to reach out if you’re feeling overwhelmed or depressed, and struggling to cope. There are many great resources to help you get back on your feet and to give you the help you need to start enjoying life again. If you or your loved one struggles with social anxiety and you’d like some help, please get in touch with us by calling 020 8298 9677, or by submitting your details on our website.
Remember you’re not alone. Many people face social anxiety and depression every day, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about struggling with these conditions. Let us help you begin living your life to the fullest and to start feeling confident and hopeful again.