Yes, you can get past your social anxiety. Yes, you can stop it pushing you around.
If you’ve been working to overcome social anxiety, and failing, this article may give you a better understanding of what’s going on in your brain and what you need to do to make lasting changes. Scientists and researchers have now built up a much richer understanding of how our brains and minds work, and what to do when they’re not working well.
Our brains have evolved to learn patterns of thinking. Our brains have even evolved to constantly keep updating their own structures to make it easier for those repeated patterns to happen. Part of what is happening inside your anxious brain is routine thinking that limits you. Imagining disaster, “this or that will go wrong,” “people must hate me,” and so on.
We use routine habitual thinking all the time. When you use a card to pay for something you type your number in. Most of us don’t remember the number; we remember the movement of our fingers. Perhaps you’ve had the experience where for some reason that sequence scrambled, and you cannot remember the number. Or tying your shoelace. Next time you do it, try to deliberately think about what you are doing with your fingers. It’s likely you will struggle to tie your shoe – thinking about a learned routine slows it down in your brain and can sometimes stop it.
I know neither of these examples are life-changing (well, perhaps forgetting your PIN when you must have that purchase!) but they show what’s achievable when you can understand what’s going on inside your brain and mind.
You can partly reduce the levels of your social anxiety by understanding your unhelpful thought patterns, and then changing them. It’s not about talking about them endlessly; it’s about understanding these automatic thoughts and doing what’s possible to interrupt them or even scramble them, to render them inactive. There are now plenty of psychological tools and strategies to do this.
Mindfulness is one tool that could help in making significant changes for you. At the very least, being aware of what’s going on between your ears while it’s happening gives you information about how your brain ‘does’ anxiety, and that can make it much easier to find long-term solutions.
Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) offers ways to interfere with your repeated thought patterns.
Another brain mechanism involved with social anxiety is emotional memories – memories that carry strong negative emotional charges. Many anxious people find that their emotional memories contaminate their thoughts; perhaps they have a stronger emotional reaction than the current circumstances merit. Fortunately, less than 15 years ago scientists showed how these emotional memories in humans are modifiable, removing much of the negative sting.
Social anxiety treatments that are effective must be about more than removing these problems. They must be about putting in place new thinking habits that are going to support you. Some will be social skills; people who are comfortable and confident in social situations will be unwittingly developing their social skills, and you may first need to deliberately develop specific social skills to support you. You may also need to develop a broader strategy around social events, depending on your nature. For example if you are a quiet, introverted or highly sensitive person, then you’re going to have to build in recovery time after social events, time when you know you can recover in a way that works for you.
The way forward today is not to force the brain and mind to do something it never evolved to do, but to work with how the brain and mind function.
Your route to a workable solution for social anxiety might be something like:
- Identify some of the main mental processes contributing to the anxiety. This will be a combination of emotional memories and habitual thinking.
- Quickly deal with as many of the identified processes as possible. This will give a sense of impetus towards a better future for you. Emotional memories are often easy to calm: my tools of choice are Havening and memory reconsolidation techniques.
- Identify new simple mental habits that will help recovery. Put methods in place for you to practise these habits so they can eventually become automatic – just like tying a shoelace. I use a combination of NLP, coaching, and mindfulness skills and strategies to make it more likely that these new habits become established.
- Figure out the exact mental strategies going on for you with your limiting thinking habits. Habits such as catastrophising, or mind-reading. Deliberately use strategies to unhook yourself from the emotional charge, and find ways to scramble some of these processes so they no longer have an impact. NLP is a great tool that was developed for this type of work.
- Identify supporting and nourishing activities for you. Of the thousands of things you could do, identify those which are most likely to support you in preparing for a social event and recovering afterwards.
I have three decades of experience working with people in these ways, so I have a large toolbox at my disposal!
If what you’ve read so far sounds like it fits your circumstances, and you feel you will need some additional help putting these in place, then may I suggest you book a free phone or Skype session with me where we can get absolutely clear on what is likely to be needed in your circumstances.