How do I feel less nervous and shy in social situations?
anonymous Asks ...
I am very socially uncomfortable and shy. When I have to talk to people for any length of time that I am not comfortable with (most people beyond immediate family and a few close friends) I start to feel very nervous. The big problem is as soon as I start to feel nervous my face starts to go very obviously red. And as soon as I can feel my face flushing I start to feel even more nervous because I know the other person knows I am nervous and so it just gets worse. What can I do to stop this situation?
Penny Bell Says ...
This is not as uncommon as you might think. There’s even a name for it – social anxiety - and the symptoms are “marked and persistent anxiety in social situations”. The thing that drives it is fear of embarrassment or humiliation, and that is why it tends to become self-generating – you fear the obvious sign of your anxiety, the flush in your facial skin, and that compounds the issue further for you. Situations where you feel you are under scrutiny or have to perform exacerbate the anxiety are also more problematic. It is an anticipatory anxiety and for some it can last for weeks leading up to the feared occasion and can include fear of fainting, fear of losing bladder or bowel control or having their mind go blank. It usually begins in childhood and in those who have a predisposition to shyness.
The treatment for social anxiety is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and includes cognitive restructuring and exposure. The way this works is by learning and practicing new ways of thinking and behaving by challenging present thinking, which is believed to be erroneous or maladaptive, and this is usually taught in counselling sessions and practiced outside in everyday life. Relaxation techniques are also used. When cognitive restructuring is paired with, ideally, exposure to the situation, or exposure to a mental representation of the situation, the person ties the new way of thinking to the situation, and new learning, or “habituation”, occurs. The association between the situation and the feared consequences is thus reduced, and the new way of thinking and feeling is increased and strengthened. The person then experiences a difference in the situation, and based on this new experience, there is an anticipation and expectation of the next experience that is “de-fused”, and the fear is not so intense. This is a gradual process but it does work! So there is hope!
Some therapists like to add the learning or revising of social skills to the repertoire, and this can be helpful in planning “how you will be” in the situation, acting more skilfully, being genuine, and being relaxed, which can also be empowering.
When you seek out a therapist to help you with your social anxiety, interview them to make sure they understand the condition and its treatment, and it will be uphill from there for you. I wish you all the best with it.