“When you walk into a room full of people you are most likely calm and don’t want to leave immediately. I am not calm and I want to get out of there as quick as I can.”
Have you ever walked into a room full of people and immediately wanted to leave? Does the thought of social interaction make you cringe? Do you secretly rejoice when people cancel plans you didn’t want to go to anyway?
Social anxiety – or social phobia – isn’t just about being a bit nervous or uncomfortable around strangers, it's a mental and physical battle.
Given the coronavirus pandemic has limited socialising in person for most of the last 12 months, some people may be extra nervous about restrictions easing and feeling forced into re-entering social situations.
If this is the case for you, it’s important to recognise what social anxiety looks and feels like.
What are the signs?
Common signs include excessive sweating, shaking, blushing or stuttering when trying to speak – as well as nausea or diarrhoea. These symptoms are often barely noticeable from the outside but for the person experiencing them – it’s all they can think about. There’s nothing like recognising you’re feeling anxious to make you feel even more anxious.
In addition to worrying about how you probably look stupid sweating and blushing in front of everyone, you also worry that you will do or say the wrong thing and end up publicly humiliated and embarrassed. It can be difficult to make eye contact or even think about anything other than “What is everyone else thinking”?
The unique demands of a COVID-19 world may also cause you to worry. Remembering to wear or at least have a mask on your person, sanitising regularly and abiding by occupancy limits in venues are all examples of things to take into account that weren’t previously issues.
So, what can you do in the moment to help keep your cool?
Challenge your negative thoughts:
- Question the facts behind your thoughts and assumptions.
Instead of: “That person hates me”, try "they’ve only been nice to me."
Instead of: “I’m late so my boss probably thinks I’m unreliable", try "everyone is late sometimes, and I’m usually on time."
- Think of something that makes you feel good – immerse yourself in a memory. Try and remember as many details as you can and how you felt in that moment.
- Tell yourself that there’s no use dwelling on your negative thoughts in this moment – recognise that they’re not helping. You can do this by listening to music, reading a book, practising mindfulness or watching TV.
- If you can’t do these things in the present moment you can try to distract your mind by counting down from 100, doing your times tables, noticing how many people are wearing blue around you… whatever works.
Delay your thoughts:
- Set aside time to think about negative thoughts later. Knowing you’re going to deal with it later can help you get through the current moment. It might seem strange putting time in your diary for thinking but if you have a strict start and finish time (say 30 minutes apart) it can help you gain control and stop negative thoughts interfering with your whole day.
- Relaxation techniques and practising mindfulness can have a great impact on your mindset and ability to cope.
- Take deep, evenly spaced breaths – making sure to use your whole diaphragm.
- Think about the word ‘relax’ on your breath out and imagine all your worries flowing out of you.
- Relax your muscles by starting from your toes and focusing on different parts of your body all the way up to your face – tensing them – and then letting them completely relax.
- If you are struggling to breathe as a result of wearing a mask, excuse yourself from the social situation and go outside for some fresh air where you can remove the mask and compose yourself.
These tips are only small things you can do by yourself that can help in the short term but social anxiety is treatable and seeking professional support is the first step to recovery.
As per the video below, it's important to know when anxiety is talking.
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