Emotions are a regular part of everyday life. Everyone feels nervous or worried at times; especially during situations that we perceive as stressful. You may have had ‘butterflies in your stomach before meeting a new person or had sweaty palms when speaking in front of a group of people. Usually, our mind and body can regulate those feelings in a manageable way. Sometimes, however, those feelings can overwhelm us and result in overwhelming anxiety and worry. Fortunately, there are strategies that can help you cope with anxiety.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a term often used to describe feelings of fear, worry, or panic. It’s important to understand that anxiety is normal to a certain extent and actually serves a purpose in our survival. When presented with a threat, feelings of fear and panic jump-start the body’s fight-or-flight response. When anxiety triggers the fight-or-flight response, hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body causing increased heart rate, rapid or shallow breathing, and suppression of important bodily functions. This is meant to be a short-term response necessary to give your body the energy it needs to either fight off a threat or run from it. In our modern lives, these threats often take the form of driving in traffic, missing a credit card payment, or having negative interactions with people on social media that trigger fight-or-flight.
Our bodies can also react the same way to perceived threats, like when we think about the future and the worst-case scenario in situations that haven’t occurred yet. Anxiety becomes a mental health issue when fear, worry, and panic occur so frequently it impacts daily life and physical health by not allowing the body to recover from fight-or-flight responses. Individuals living with anxiety disorders experience consistent feelings of nervousness, worry, or panic.
Social anxiety disorder is a type of phobia that can completely disrupt your ability to function in social situations. Individuals with social anxiety disorder have intense anxiety regarding social situations and interactions, which leads to avoiding social situations altogether. For example, they might be worried about being judged by others or be fearful of doing something to embarrass themselves. This makes these situations distressing or unenjoyable, which eventually leads to avoidance. The good news is that social anxiety is manageable with the use of therapeutic strategies. So, what are those strategies you might ask? Let’s get into it…
Strategies to Cope with Social Anxiety
Anxiety-provoking social situations can accelerate breathing and amplify other symptoms of anxiety. Deep breathing has been shown to calm the body down in stressful situations. The good thing about deep breathing is that it can be done anywhere, doesn’t require anything other than a pair of lungs, and works quickly to calm you down in the moment. You can easily step away from the anxiety-inducing situation and take a minute to do a breathing exercise like this:
- Inhale slowly through your nose for 3 seconds filling up your abdomen and your chest. Hold for just a second.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth for 3 seconds completely emptying your abdomen and chest.
- Repeat this for a few minutes or until you can feel calm.
Challenge Negative Thoughts
Individuals that suffer from social anxiety often experience thought distortions called ‘mindreading’ and ‘personalization.’ Mindreading is when you assume you know what others are thinking about you. For example, “Everyone can tell I’m anxious and now they think I’m weird.” Personalization is when we assume other people’s behaviors are related to or caused by us. For example, “She looks annoyed, I must have done something wrong.” One of the ways you can change those anxiety-inducing thoughts is through cognitive reframing. It’s a system of challenging unhelpful thoughts or thought distortions and creating new more helpful ways of thinking. If you can change your point of view, you can change your thought and therefore feel less anxious. To challenge those thoughts, think of a recent social situation that made you anxious and write down the negative thoughts you had before, during, and after the situation. Then answer these questions:
- “Am I jumping to conclusions?”
- “What assumptions am I making about this situation?”
- “What other explanation could there be?”
As you answer these questions honestly, you can then start to explore alternative thoughts that are more helpful.
Mindfulness includes paying attention to internal and external experiences, not recognizing thoughts and feelings as negative or positive, and allowing thoughts and feelings to flow freely in and out of the mind. Mindfulness is about being present, increasing our awareness, and opening our eyes to the reality of now. It helps you avoid anxiety-inducing thoughts about what could possibly happen in the future or what others are thinking. Start practicing mindfulness by paying attention to ordinary things like the sensation of your breath coming in through the noise, filling your lungs and exhaling through the mouth. Establish a regular mindfulness routine to decrease feelings of anxiety overall. Try doing a mindfulness meditation each day, like this one:
- You can choose to lie in bed or move into a comfortable seated position, set a timer for 5 minutes or longer if you wish, start by closing your eyes.
- Take a moment to check in with yourself. Connect with your body, and notice how you feel.
- Steady your breath by taking a full inhale and exhale, and become aware of the sensation of your breath.
- Try to focus on your breathing. It might be helpful to repeat a mantra, which can be something as simple as ‘I am calm’ or ‘I am safe.’
- Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- If thoughts arise and interrupt your process, that’s normal! Continue to acknowledge them and gently let them go.
Make a Plan
Creating opportunities to meet other people and develop relationships is very important in coping with social anxiety. Once you’ve gained some confidence in being able to challenge anxious thoughts and use skills like deep breathing to calm symptoms of anxiety, it might be time to get involved in some small social situations. Making a plan and preparing ahead of time for an activity will help avoid last-minute stressors and lessen anxiety. Pick an activity to get involved with that interests you like taking a class, volunteering, playing a sport, or exercising. Determine what steps you need to take to get involved and work on each step one at a time to work up to it. If you experience setbacks, don’t give up!
If you feel like you’re experiencing social anxiety, you’re not alone and there is no need to suffer in silence. Social anxiety is a very treatable condition and therapy is one of the most effective ways to symptoms. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional for more strategies to cope with social anxiety.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.