How I overcame Social Anxiety
In another thread I asked if anyone would like me to share how I overcame Social Anxiety with a long detailed post. There were some that did, and others that had no interest.
If you do not have interest, that is perfectly fine. For those that do, I hope you are able to get something out of my journey and I would feel very satisfied if a single person improved due to a simple hour of me writing the following.
1- About Me
2- All Anxiety Comes From Fear. Period
3- Good and Bad, Happy and Sad
4- Climb a mountain and tell no one
5- Past, Present, and Future
6- Expose yourself
1- About Me
One year ago I was petrified of even the smallest social interaction. I remember walking down an isle in a grocery store and as I got closer to a random stranger that was down the isle my anxiety increased with every step. I would fear something so small as them striking up a conversation and having to reply without sounding stupid.
When I decided to aggressively pursue learning as much as possible about Social Anxiety, I felt a noticeable improvement within a week, significant improvement within a month and now a year later don’t think about Social Anxiety ever. Prior to this, for 30 years I had tried a laundry list of medications and just generally avoided situations that made me uncomfortable.
Currently, I work as an accountant for one of the top Business Schools outside of the USA. I have meetings, speeches, and interactions with groups of people where I need to clearly express my opinion to them on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis. I have not thought about Social Anxiety in months.
2- All Anxiety Comes From Fear. Period.
A lot of us experience anxiety and don’t understand it. We are bewildered what is taking place and just want the feeling to stop. We fight, avoid, and even run away from situations to make this feeling stop; however, these actions reinforce our fear and make it grow stronger.
What is taking place in your body is simple. The fight or flight reflex kicks in when our brain interprets certain stimuli as a threat. We interpret something as a threat then our body (adrenal gland) releases adrenaline. This adrenaline is what we have labeled ‘anxiety’. Adrenaline is what produces the “feeling of fear”.
Adrenaline is useful when you are in woods and cross paths with a bear as it gives you energy to fight or run. However, in social situations adrenaline is not as useful because some of the symptoms are counter productive. For example, not being able to think clearly is normal symptom of adrenaline and is not useful when you are giving a speech.
An example of this is below.
If you would like additional reading on this subject, I recommend Claire Weekes “Hope and Help for Your Nerves”. Take some of her writing with a grain of salt (She wrote it in the 60’s) but simply understand her message. I was motivated to beat SA and read her book in one day, it’s an easy read. Try an audio book if you don’t like reading.
3- Good and Bad. Happy and Sad.
These are opposing sides. Without good there would be no bad. Without happy there would be no sad. When you train yourself to stop caring about people having a good opinion of you, then you don’t care the times you think they have a bad opinion of you. When you train yourself to stop feeling happy when you receive praise, you will no longer feel sad when you receive criticism. People with Social Anxiety fear other peoples (potentially) negative opinions.
The important point is to no longer fear receiving criticism or a bad opinion. That’s what this all ties back to, fear. Remember anxiety is fear resulting in your body producing adrenaline and producing a feeling that we all find uncomfortable and have labeled ‘anxiety’.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say I write a post on a message board and get a lot of positive feedback. I might in the past have read over my post multiple times, read the positive responses multiple times and felt good about myself, resulting in being happier. However, when I would write a post that was received negatively I would dwell on it. I may become upset that people have a negative opinion of me.
To restate: Stop caring about people giving you praise and having a good opinion of you. Once you stop caring about happy and good, you automatically stop fearing bad and sad.
If you find yourself worrying about others good or bad opinions, simply catch yourself. It’s ok to slip and start caring about the good, you’ve been doing this for years. It is not something you will stop doing over night. Don’t be hard on yourself and simply stop thinking about people’s opinions (both positive or negative) when you catch yourself.
I actually found tackling these situations from the ‘positive’ angle easier. It’s not always easy to tell yourself to simply “stop thinking about it” when you are facing a negative opinion. It Is much easier to catch yourself feeling happy when receiving a positive opinion and remind yourself to not let others opinions get you too high.
4- Climb a mountain, and tell no one.
Do you ever find yourself trying to impress people? You care so much what people think about you that you feel the need to rattle off accomplishments in an effort to make that person have a ‘good’ opinion of you?
Who we care to impress can be people we should be comfortable around. Our parents, or family members for example are people we may care about them having a good opinion of, thus fear them having a bad opinion of us. Other culprits are authority figures such as bosses. Their opinions seem to matter more.
If we were to express our opinion on a subject to a crazy homeless person would we fear them having a negative opinion of us or our opinion? Of course not, because we do not value the opinion of a crazy homeless person as much as we care about our dad having a good opinion of us. There is nothing to fear with the crazy homeless person’s opinion, so your body does not produce adrenaline, meaning you don’t experience anxiety.
When you care about someone having a positive opinion of you, you will fear them having a negative opinion of you.
What I say to this is: “Climb a mountain, and tell no one”. It can be extremely empowering to do something very positive and then not feed your need to tell people so they will have a positive opinion of you.
When I first started going to Toastmasters classes (public speaking) I told people before I even went because I wanted them to think I was brave. Then when I failed badly in my first attempt I was embarrassed because now I thought they had a negative opinion of me.
From then on I didn’t tell a single soul I was going to public speaking classes. I went for months, gave speeches that were incredibly difficult for someone with Social Anxiety, and didn’t brag, or tell anyone. It felt very empowering to not need others praise to feel fulfilled and satisfied doing a difficult task.
5- Past, Present, and Future
All fear comes from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. You don’t experience fear when you are in the present.
You have probably experienced a time when you dwelled on someone’s opinion. Perhaps when you said something stupid and day, weeks, or even months later thought of that time when you said something stupid and were embarrassed.
With the future, you may have a meeting, speech, or date that you are anxious about. You have probably worried about what people would think of you at one of these events prior to it happening and didn’t want to look stupid during it.
In the present you are not worried. When you are actively listening to what people are saying you aren’t in your own head thinking about others opinions. You are in the moment.
When I first started going to Toastmasters as part of my exposure therapy I was terrified. I would sit in the crowd leading up to my speech and realize after: I didn’t remember a single word from the people giving speeches before me. I would think in my own head what I was going to say once it was my turn and make sure it was memorized to death. This resulted in getting more and more anxious, with greater and greater amounts of adrenaline flowing through my veins leading up to my speech as I was sitting there the entire time worrying about the future.
What I found was, if you know your topic you will remember it when you get on stage, anything you work on 10 minutes before in your head is useless. Instead, I focused deeply on what other speakers before were saying. I listened, and stayed in the present moment. Then when it was my turn to get up, sure I would start experiencing adrenaline as I walked up to the stage; however, I had not worked myself up into a frazzle by thinking too much about the future beforehand.
Additionally, another way I’ve found useful at staying in the present is sports. I’ve never been anxious playing basketball, because I’m focused on the present. I’m not thinking about what the other teams center is thinking of me. I see a loose ball, and I dive for it. I have the balls in my hand and focus on finding a scoring opportunity or setting up a team-mate for a basket. It’s an easy way to expose yourself to being around 9 other people on the court and feeling comfortable socially. You may find yourself chatting about the game at breaks with groups of team-mates without even thinking anxious thoughts because your head is in the (present) game.
6- Expose Yourself
It is one thing to understand what anxiety is (fear), and what you are fearful of (others negative opinions). But, then you have to retrain your instincts. You need to change the fact that you interpret certain stimuli as something to be afraid of.
What I found useful for this is exposure therapy with consciously analyzing the situation before, during and after.
Maybe some of you guys have seen the movie Inception. In the movie the characters have what they refer to as a ‘totem’. It was an object that would help them realize what was real and what was not.
I came up with a straightforward message that I would repeat to myself (sort of like a totem) when I needed to analyze a situation. It helped realize what was real (worth worrying about) and what wasn’t real (not worth worrying about).
Basically, it is loosely based off of the serenity prayer, which is as follows.
grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Let me give you an example.
I’m walking into the bank and see someone I know. I wave and say “hi”, and the other person just keeps walk while a bunch of onlookers see this take place.
In the past I may have gone to a place where I think “Is he mad at me? Do the onlookers think I’m stupid for not garnering a wave back?” I may have dwelled on this for some period.
Instead now I would go through my process. Am I 100% sure the other person is mad at me? No, maybe the didn’t see me. Ok, then I need to move on and not worry about some possible negative opinion that I don’t even know is real.
The first time this situation (where someone didn’t wave back) cropped up I immediately felt a little panic and jump in heart rate. However, because I analyzed the situation after, the next time the same situation came up where someone didn’t wave back, I experienced no jump in heart-rate or anxiety at all.
I created a laundry list of uncomfortable exposure therapy situations where I could practice this type of thinking. Some examples below.
Before, during and after analyze the situations and determine if these are things that require worrying about or not.
At the beginning I analyzed every situation where someone could have a positive or negative opinion of me. Then over time I stopped needing to do it as often. There was a noticeable difference as quick as a week. Then even more improvement after a month. From there I simply stopped thinking about it as often, where now I haven’t thought about social anxiety in months.
One thing that has been very beneficial is my current job. I’m surrounded by intellectual, supportive, positive people and it has helped my confidence to express opinions without having to be fearful that there is criticism coming once I express my opinion.
In the past I’ve had jobs where bosses never praise your good efforts, and only focus on criticizing when you do something wrong. These types of environments cause more harm than is worth and if you can, I would suggest removing yourself from destructive environments like this.
The steps are simple.
To reiterate the steps I completed to achieve the goal of not being afraid of others opinions is as follows
1. Stop caring so much about people's praise and good opinions. Once you do that, you no longer fear the bad opinions and criticism.
2. Climb a mountain and tell no one. It can be incredibly empowering to have a piece of information that would garner you praise if you told people, but then simply keep it to yourself. You can have 1, 2, 3, or 10 of these. The important thing is for it to be something you think would garner praise, and then keep it to yourself.
3. Stay in the present. When you catch yourself worrying about the future or dwelling on the past simply catch yourself and come back to the present. Consciously analyzing situations where people could have an opinion of you before, during, or after the event is a good way of nipping this in the bud and figuring out if it's something worth worrying about in the first place.
4. Exposure therapy. This isn't about just throwing yourself into your worst fears, because that would simply suck. Expose yourself to situations that are outside of your comfort zone and would give you some anxiety then use the above points. Analyze these situations before, during, and after. Focus on not thinking about other peoples negative/positive opinions during it. Don't tell people about these difficult tasks you are completing. And, try and stay in the present moment while doing these tasks (not worrying about the future or past).
Actually implementing the steps are not so simple. They are hard, but I promise you that having no anxiety in social situations Is worth fighting for. You will probably face road bumps where something doesn’t work and then need to critically think through the situation. Some of the acts, like public speaking, are very difficult for someone with Social Anxiety and may even cause you to backslide if you don’t think the outcome through properly.
I genuinely believe that plenty of people with Social Anxiety can make significant improvements in their happiness by reading, learning, and implementing knowledge out there, regardless if you are on medication currently or not. Whatever you need to do to become happier about social interaction makes me happy, and I would strongly suggest learning as much as you can on the topic and actively implementing that learned knowledge into your life.
Thank you for sharing, that was really a brilliant post. I can't say I disagree with any of your points, actually. I was skeptical but I think if you can implement those steps you could probably make a lot of progress with getting over this stuff.
I'm not sure if I buy into the whole Toastmasters pitch, for myself anyway. I just....there is no way, no way in hell I'm ever, ever going to get up in front of a room full of people and give a speech. I have a very difficult time just dealing with meetings at work, even meetings where we're not face-to-face...I mean, even just standing around in a lobby or conference room talking, I get extremely anxious. I just can't identify with that at all but I'm sure it's helped you and I've heard stories from family and friends in which it's really helped them...it's helped them even advance in their careers.
I refuse to do exposure therapy because, well....it's all of my worst fears, usually thrown into a public place, usually in situations I fear the most. I can't do exposure therapy to help my anxiety, because of my anxiety. I think I know what your response would be to that but I still just don't know how you can ever, possibly, say for example....help someone get over their fear of heights by taking them to the roof of a building and then locking them up there lol. I've heard exposure therapy works, for a lot of people. I just can't even get myself to agree to even try. When anxiety is that bad I'm not sure what the next step is or if there even is one tbh.
The steps you talk about implementing make a whole lot of sense, don't get me wrong. And I agree if they help even just one person a little bit it was worthwhile. Much respect to you for how far you've come. They make a lot of sense but for some of us I think they're going to be impossible to implement. I just...maybe I'm too old lol, too set in my ways...I just cannot see myself actually going through them all, there is just no way.
It is worth thinking about though, and thanks for sharing what you did.
I suppose I did not include how Toastmasters ended up playing out for me. It was one of my biggest fears so I thought it would make a good addition to my exposure therapy list. I went to ~20 meetings over the course of 4-5 months. I no longer go because I don't particularly enjoy it (I do lean to being an introvert and the place is full of over the top extroverts). I'm not at a place that I love public speaking but I think I've gone from being terrified of it to now being able to do it if I need to (but still don't like to).
My very first Toastmasters class I had a panic attack by doing nothing more than introducing myself for 15 seconds. I felt way worse after that first meeting, and if anything re-inforced my fear.
I decided to go back, but take a Xanax before. This time I was able to get through it. I went back more and more, taking slightly less Xanax each time and made a point of facing my fear EVERY single time. Any time they asked for voulenteers to come up and do a off the cuff 30 second speech I forced myself to not think, and just put up my hand. I felt that if I ran from my fear it made it worse the next time, but if I faced my fear EVERY single time and experienced situation after situation where the results weren't near as catastrophic as I would envision in my head beforehand I would move forward and the fear would get less each time.
I also made a point after the classes of just accepting and letting go if I did 'poorly', because you can't change the past so not worth worrying about. What I noticed is people weren't acting like they had a negative opinion of me after the times I did poorly. If we were chatting during coffee break they'd just jump into normal conversation as if I didn't just go up and bomb 15 minutes earlier. I think sometimes we forget that people have 50,000 thoughts a day, the least of which have to do with 'us'. We think other peoples opinions matter more than they really do.
In the end, I don't think I'm happier in life going to Toastmasters so I stopped. 99.9% of my life I'm not giving speeches and I don't see the point in going to Toastmasters every week just to get better at the 0.01% of my life I am giving speeches. When they come, I pop a Xanax and am capable of getting through them.
In the end, I do think pushing myself with that was beneficial but I don't think I could have pushed into public speaking very far without Xanax. It''s the one area of my life I'm willing to take pills for and I don't see much problem with that.
I am 100% with you that locking someone with a fear of heights on top of a roof would not help. As I mentioned earlier, I had a panic attack my first Toastmasters meeting and I think if anything that meeting re-inforced my fears. If I would have kept going without Xanax I think I would have done more harm than good going having a panic attack every week.
I don't think people need to implement things as difficult as public speaking to see improvement. Analyzing every day interactions and pushing some exposure therapy just outside someones comfort zone (ex. wearing ugly clothes) I believe would still yield some noteworthy results.
It's interesting how many different types of issues the label social anxiety covers. That's one of the reasons why certain things work for some but not for others.
Exposure can be useful but you have to make sure that you don't overdo it.
Have you tried any gradual/graded/systematic desensitization? It can be done as real or imagined. Here's a link that talks about imagined version and has a lot of useful extra notes to improve the chances of it working. http://www.guidetopsychology.com/sysden.htm
I've heard the following statement but didn't find it matching my experience.
1. Danger is present or near, in time or might be coming in the future
2. Internal trigger stimulus (body sensation)
3. Triggered by thoughts or memories
4. Thoughts or memories (existential dread) about meaningful life, inevitability of death, difficulty of making decisions that have moral value.
If someone suddenly threatens you with a knife or gun, that fear is about as much being in the present as it can be. Most of my issues were also like that - (e.g. standing in line or giving speed, etc) as my mind went blank often in the higher intensity panicky situations. An improv class illustrated it really well. When I had a mind block, our teacher said "Don't worry about anything. Just say the first thing that comes to mind". I wish that had been my situation ... but I couldn't think of anything. That mind block happened quite a few times, but there were somewhat more times where I was able to come up with something and make people laugh.
Sometimes attention diversion techniques can work but if the fear intensity is too high, then it's better to focus on desensitizing the fear trigger (as mentioned above) with other approaches.
Firstly, I agree that not over-doing it with exposure therapy is an important point. My first Toastmasters event was way too much for me to take at that point, and it was an important learning experience for me.
I didn't see your link about gradual/systematic desensitization, but judging by the wording I'm assuming it is just slowly working up to more difficult exposure therapy tasks.
I did that to some degree starting with relatively easier tasks, like wearing ugly clothes to the mall, then worked up to giving speeches.
Recently I came across a TED talk on comfort zone's, and think I'll just do those from time to time, to continually improve my self confidence and continually reinforce caring less about others opinions.
It probably depends what we consider 'present' and 'future'. If someone is standing across from you with a knife, presently you aren't really being hurt right? You might be worried that a few seconds from now you will be stabbed causing some kind of problems in the future.
Imagine, you could take a snapshot of facing a knife wielding attacker and just stay in that moment forever. You would eventually come to realize that this isn't currently a scary thing since the attack in the future isn't coming, correct?
My experience with improv is that, yes I felt anxious during the improv causing some blank moments. However, I think that is because of worrying about the future. From here on I'm just going to use the word 'speech' to represent 'improv'.
When I'm going up to give a speech I'll worry about the future, thinking things like "I hope my mind doesn't go blank causing me to emberass myself in front of people" and additionally, once that adrenaline starts pumping I''ll think things like "Oh God, it's happening make this adrenaline stop!".
Once I'm up giving the speech I'm anxious, but that is because I was worrying about it before hand, working myself up into a frenzy. When I'm in the moment giving the speech and not in my head, the anxiety levels drop. Sometimes during the speech I'll have this weird 3rd person thing where I'm talking but also thinking at the same time, and that's usually when my anxiety levels start creeping up again.
If that speech was 100% in the present there would be no thoughts of others opinions before. There would be no thoughts of others opinions during. The only thought would simply be "My job currently is to recite my information that I've prepared before". That job by itself isn't adrenaline inducing, it's all the other things surrounding it that cause anxiety imo.
I enjoyed reading your post.
I would agree that Toastmasters is a good way to improve your speaking skills.
I found giving speeches pretty easy but had a very hard time socializing with people before, during, and after the meeting when people were sort of just mingling about organically.
Congrats on your accomplishments!
I know most are familiar with the idea of the gradual/systematic desensitization but not many people do the imagined version. Or when they do, there are a few things that can interfere with it or improve the chances of working. That link mentioned the issues I came across (either from my experience or from others') and how to resolve them. I was lucky to find a few support groups and also have real exposure. But that approach can be useful for those whose only exposure option is Toastmasters but Toastmasters is very high on the fear hierarchy.
While there were some presentations at school and work where I could say that I worried about the outcome (effecting grade or employment), that was only secondary issue created by the anxiety (and not vice versa). If I knew that my mind was not going to to blank, I wouldn't have have had those worries. I also experienced the same things in situation where there was definitely nothing worry about. For example, giving speeches at support groups, standing in line, etc. I was experiencing *pure* fear and no thinking issues - neither before, during, nor after.
So, I'm sure that thoughts are not the only source of anxiety (and by that I mean fear response). As mentioned in the list above, thoughts also can be the triggers/starters but don't have to be.
To be honest, I'm a little tired out from a strenuous day at work so, going to read this a bit better tomorrow and address.
On a brief first skim: you are talking about how at work/school/meetings you don't worry about the outcome most of the time (grade/employment, etc...) but rather worried about the fact that your mind would go blank.
Someone's mind going blank is a completely normal symptom experienced by excess adrenaline in your body. The body is using its resources to prepare for fight/flight, not talking.
When you are worrying about your mind going blank, you are in essence worrying that you will experience adrenaline (as this is what causes your mind to go blank). To take it a step further, you are fearful that you will experience the symptoms produced by the chemical (adrenaline) produced by the fear response.
Have you ever heard of the saying, "There's nothing to fear but fear itself"?
You can work yourself up to trigger the fear response by nothing more than being fearful of the symptoms from the fear response.
An example: I was going to an office a while back where I knew I'd be required to answer some questions on the spot in front of a large group of people that were all half listening. I viewed this as an opportunity to go talk in front of a bunch of people, while experiencing some adrenaline (causing blank mind), and still performing anyways. I was excited at the opportunity to overcome fear, and not care what others thought even if I didn't do well.
What happened was I got there, talked and didn't experience even the slightest shred of fear. Why? Because I was excited to be faced with the fear response (and resulting symptoms), not fearful of getting up and having to deal with the fear response so it was never triggered in the first place.
My main issue wasn't my mind going blank ... I was sort of lucky that I could push through that and the other fear symptoms. What I worried about was the effects on not performing well on school grade or employment. It's the "What if ..." type thinking/worrying.
Actually, that was one of the easier issues to deal with because for me it was mainly a thought with a slight fear (compared to the actual events). By practicing "I'll do the best I can do" and various interrupting techniques, I was able to deal with that aspect after a while. But the rest of the fear response still remained, until I looked for other ways to deal with it and eventually something worked.
Missing important details.
"You donít experience fear when you are in the present."
Except if a lion is chewing on your leg. Then you experience a lot of fear.
Actually, overall I wouldn't say that it was a lot of work to figure out. It was mostly the issue finding the right resources that took time. Especially, since 10-20 years ago it wasn't as easy to find info as it is nowadays with the internet.
Having said that, some aspects were still "tricky" because neither I nor more than a dozen people who work with approaches that focus on the subconscious were able to speed up the desensitization process which in some cases that took 11 years. It was more like something was "holding back rather than it needed that much time. Sure, in the first four years I did do a lot of things but there was about a year or so when I almost did nothing and the rate of change was the same. It felt more like a landslide being cleared from a highway where you can move little by little but it's not really progress of your work but something else.
But interestingly, as far as the physical symptoms were concerned, change "finally" started 11 years ago and things kept getting better and better gradually.
Now, when I look back what my life was it's night and day ... and in a way it's only the "beginning". :)
I really wish people would make more post of their achievements like this. It teaches me alot. Like, while i ago i realized i was feeding my insecurities by dwelling on cool things about me or people's positive feedbacks. Your thread made me realized that's doing so will just cause fear of the negative opinions.
Also, i'm noticing a difference between people who are overcoming their SA: they continue on the road of learning and believe it will help. That's what i realized in past months and now following the same steps. 5 days a week i dedicated 20 mins researching/implementing methods to this. My theory is overtime more ideas and realizations will come through many applications of what you learn. Sounds cliche, but many people have this false belief if something doesn't work in a short time then it will never work, not knowing it take time before the picture and dots to connect.
Thanks for the helpful & inspirational post!
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