Understanding and Overcoming Social Anxiety by Austin Jones, AMFT
The first thing to understand about social anxiety is that it’s a learned response. Somewhere along the way, your mind learned that to be in front of people, to have eyes on you, to be on stage, is actually to be in danger.
Imagine being on the playground, in the middle of a circle, surrounded by kids — the bully and the bully’s friends — and you’re the target. You’re under the crosshairs. Your body and your brain learn that the more eyes that are on you, the more danger you are in. Your body feels pressure, panic, fear and wants to get out of there. The way to be safe is to have no one looking at you. These experiences or ones like it make a big impression on your brain in order to protect you. You learn “I better not be seen.”
Let’s think about what happens during social anxiety. When you’re at an event full of people, you have an adrenaline response, a sympathetic nervous system response, where your mind and body sense you aren’t safe. Adrenaline starts flowing, your heart starts pumping fast, blood pressure goes up, you get sweaty… Your brain has realized that being seen equals being in danger. At this moment, you may want to be invisible. You may want to be hidden.
An important thing to understand about social anxiety is that your brain isn't trying to sabotage you into not making friends — although that may be the result. Your social anxiety is trying to protect you. It’s not that you’re wrong or stupid, it’s that your body doesn’t understand the difference between real and perceived danger. Your body is trying to help you out — understanding this can take some of the power back.
The first step in overcoming social anxiety is to start to notice when it arises. Cultivate the observing self. Cultivate the part of you that recognizes, “Oh, this is my social anxiety acting up again.” Be prepared for it. Acknowledge that it’s happening. See it happening and recognize there’s a part of your brain that’s trying to help you out.
The second thing to understand about social anxiety, is that when your adrenaline system kicks in, it speeds up the rate of your thoughts. When the danger response is triggered and you have adrenaline flowing through your body, your brain gets confused. You start to think in black and white because when our brain evolved, we needed to make split second decisions when we had adrenaline flowing. Those decisions needed to be treated as reality, not as hypothetical. There was no time for nuance. When you’re experiencing social anxiety, you don’t understand the difference between hypothetical and reality — and this is absolutely evolutionary. Tens of millions of years ago, when you encountered a lion or a tiger or a snake, you didn’t have time to consider what the other might be thinking. You had to make snap judgements and assume that danger is real. There’s no stopping and thinking calmly about the situation. You gotta fight or you gotta run. Adrenaline does this to our thinking. It makes hypothetical fears feel like reality. And that’s what it’s designed to do. It’s working exactly how it’s supposed to.
Adrenaline has a half life of 1-5 minutes and can be shut down even quicker through meditative techniques. If you can shut off your adrenaline response, your mind will think more clearly. Start to breathe deeply and slow down the rate of exhalation. Breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 7. As you slow down your exhalation, your O2 level will decrease, your CO2 level will increase and your parasympathetic and your vagus nervous system will become active. Heart rate will slow down, blood pressure will decrease and you will start to “chill out.” Now you have broken the cycle of anxiety and adrenaline and wrong perceptions.
The third thing is to get to the root of your social anxiety. When did you learn that being seen meant being in danger? If you can get to the root of it and metabolize, digest and integrate that trauma, then you can unlearn that lesson.
It’s my firm belief that having a professional in your corner to help with this third step is the quickest and most effective way of understanding how your past experiences may be influencing you in the present.
Austin Jones, AMFT
My clients experience me as easy to talk to, warm, genuine and effective. We work together in a partnership to establish connection as an antidote to the isolation of addiction. My clients gain the resources, support, and judgement-free environment that they utilize on their road to recovery. Together, we uncover obstructions by pathogenic beliefs that emerged from early life experience; increase functioning and awareness in order to make better choices; and ultimately create a life worth living.
Austin is currently accepting online clients. To learn more about his schedule and availability, please call/ text/ email him at 424-254-9391; Austin@pacificmft.com.