How to Defeat Social Anxiety and Build Confidence? (Using CBT and ACT)
Social anxiety is the third largest mental health problem today after depression and substance abuse.
Social anxiety is a disorder characterized by sentiments of fear and anxiety especially when in a public gathering.
People suffering from social anxiety face considerable distress and impaired ability to function in some aspects of daily life.
They may find it challenging to deliver a speech in their school, workplace, or even going to the grocery store for shopping.
This article is meant to help you self-heal your anxiety, without medication.
Ready? Roll your sleeves up and let’s get to work!
- What is Social Anxiety?
- 3 Components of Social Anxiety
- Where Does My Social Anxiety Come from?
- How Avoidance Is Limiting Your life and Intensifying Your Anxiety?
- Overcoming Anxiety: Moving from Safety Mode to Action Mode
- #1. Managing Anxious Reactions (CBT)
- #2. Managing Anxious Thoughts (ACT)
- #3. The Social Anxiety Action Plan
What is Social Anxiety?
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is a type of anxiety disorder mostly triggered by the extreme fear of being in a social gathering.
People with social anxiety are afraid of being scrutinized and criticized by other people. Even though they know that their fear is caused by irrational thoughts, they can’t seem to overcome these thoughts.
Social anxiety includes the feelings and behaviors of shyness. But while shyness only involves fear of engaging with others, social anxiety expands beyond this to also experiencing fear of interacting with others, being observed by others, and performing in front of others.
Social anxiety involves:
- Fear of saying or doing something embarrassing like stumbling over their words,
- Fear of displaying symptoms of their anxiety such as a quivering voice, shaking, blushing, etc.,
- Fear of being criticized by others like being seen as boring, stupid, unattractive, etc.
3 Components of Social Anxiety
Understanding the components of social anxiety and reflecting on what is going on inside you can help you make sense of your experiences and then manage it more effectively.
There are three basic components of social anxiety:
1. Physiological Arousal
This is when your fight, flight, or freeze reaction kicks in and adrenaline begins pumping producing an array of symptoms including:
- Shortness of breath,
- Muscle tension,
- Dizziness or lightheadedness,
- Stomach upset,
- Headaches, and
- Frequent urination or diarrhoea.
Physiological arousal is helpful when we’re in a dangerous or challenging situation, but it can be detrimental to our physical and mental health when we frequently have this response to non-threatening situations.
2. Cognitive and Emotional
This represents the future-oriented thinking and inaccurate risk appraisal. The individual ruminates about what could go wrong and how awful it will feel.
While thinking about the future and planning can help us avoid mistakes, most of the time, it is inaccurate and unhelpful. This includes:
- Worrying unnecessarily about a social event,
- Worrying about what the outcome of a social situation might be,
- Being worried that other people might notice that you are stressed out or nervous,
This represents the avoidant behavior and rituals you do in order not to feel anxious.
While it is understandable that we may feel compelled to avoid that which can cause us discomfort, in avoiding anxiety we restrict our lives and end up intensifying our negative beliefs and fears.
A person suffering from social anxiety may try to avoid all social events, including the following:
- Going for job interviews
- Going grocery shopping
- Using the public restrooms
- Talking on the phone in public
- Eating in public
- Going on a date.
Where Does My Social Anxiety Come from?
Self-awareness of where your anxiety comes from is the first step to alleviate your social anxiety. The causes of social anxiety vary from individual to individual, but here are the most common ones:
1. Our Brains Evolved to be Anxious
Because our ancestors lived in a dangerous environment, their brains evolved to keep them safe and help them survive by being very attentive to threats. Even though, today, we’re living in a relatively safe environment, these instincts can cause inaccurate risk appraisal.
2. Family Genes
Our genes may play a role by creating a disposition towards social anxiety. But our environment and experiences will determine whether we “activate” our propensity for social anxiety. In other words, we play the major role in determining our personal experience of it. (1)
3. Life Events
Major life events such as the end of a relationship, sexual abuse, being bullied, losing a job, etc. make us fearful and uncertain about life and anxiety can kick in to protect us from similar things happening in the future.
Also the accumulation of small but stressful experiences, such as arguments or being criticized, can also contribute to your social anxiety in the long-term.
Not taking care of yourself or continually putting others’ needs before your own can make your social anxiety problems worse.
5. Having a Physical condition that attracts attention
Physical conditions such as tremors because of Parkinson’s disease, stuttering, facial disfigurement, severe acne and even a feeling that you are ugly trigger a feeling of self-consciousness and social anxiety.
How Avoidance Is Limiting Your life and Intensifying Your Anxiety?
In an attempt to escape social anxiety, we tend to avoid social situations. While this avoidance may keep us safe, this safety comes at a cost.
If you tend to take a longer, more inconvenient route in order to avoid other people, turn down a speaking engagement that would further your career, stick to one close friend all night at a party, then you’ve been operating in safety mode.
There are four components that influence our behavior and keep us stuck in safety mode:
- Intense focus on social danger
- Engaging in safety behaviours
- Fusing with anxious thoughts
- Resisting anxious feelings
1. Intense Focus On Social Danger
People suffering from social anxiety tend to focus on the signs of social danger in a particular social situation, instead of considering all aspects of the situation.
We focus on possible signs of anxiety (shaky voice, trembling hands, etc.) or what we could say or do that would make us look stupid, boring, or inadequate.
The more you focus on these aspects, the more your anxious feelings will intensify.
2. Engaging In Safety Behaviors
Safety behaviors are divided into two main categories: avoidance behaviors and hiding behaviors.
i) Avoidance Behaviors
Avoidance behaviors involve staying away from a social situation that gives us anxiety. This includes not showing up to events, turning down an invitation, or excusing ourselves by pretending we’re ill. Doing this frequently can disappoint people and isolate you.
Avoidance behaviors can also involve not applying for promotions or projects that involve making a presentation or giving a speech and avoiding conversations with people we’re interested in.
Life becomes small and unlived.
ii) Hiding Behaviors
When we can’t avoid a social situation that makes us anxious, we sometimes use hiding behaviors to minimize our anxiety symptoms. There are many forms of hiding behaviors, the following are some examples:
* Pretending to be on the phone or always wearing headphones when outside,
* Covering up with sunglasses, hats, or make-up to hide physical symptoms such as blushing,
* Hiding your opinion to stop people from getting upset with you,
* Sticking to ‘safe’ people,
* Arriving early at meetings or gatherings to avoid drawing attention to yourself,
Hiding behaviors might not be as limiting and costly as avoidance, but they can still be costly in many ways.
Hiding requires a lot of effort and can be time-consuming. We’re so focused on keeping safe that we aren’t fully present. We end up missing out on the richness social situations are meant to offer.
3. Fusing With Anxious Thoughts
When we’re in safety mode we tend to get caught up in our anxious thoughts, give them all of our attention and see them as the absolute truth.
When we’re worrying about a future social situation, we get totally caught up in thoughts like “They’re not going to be interested in talking to me, I sound so boring.”
These thoughts push us into using safety behavior so we hide or avoid the social situation altogether.
Fusing with our thoughts can also happen in the middle of a social situation. We find it difficult to concentrate on a conversation and we become disconnected from what is happening, because we’re so caught up in our unhelpful thoughts such as “My voice sounds shaky, they must think that I’m stupid,” or, “I can’t think of anything interesting to say, they must think that I’m boring.”
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4. Resisting Anxious Feelings
When we experience social anxiety symptoms such as feelings of fear, a racing heart, sweating, shaking, instead of accepting the way we’re feelings and continue to focus on the present moment, we resist. We try to push away these uncomfortable emotions and sensations.
This safety mode will intensify the complications of social anxiety, causing:
- Pessimism and negative self-talk
- Low self-esteem
- Poor social skills
- Hypersensitivity to criticism
- Having trouble asserting yourself
- Drug and substance abuse
- Poor academic and work achievement
Overcoming Anxiety: Moving from Safety Mode to Action Mode
Anxiety can originate from thoughts or reactions to what is happening in our environment.
#1. Managing Anxious Reactions (CBT)
Studies show that we are predisposed to some dangers that have helped us survive and evolve.
We tend to react rapidly and without hesitation to snakes, insects, wild animals, angry faces, contamination, and anything else we perceive as a threat.
In addition to these predisposed fears, we learn about what is dangerous through emotional memories using the process of association whether you still remember the memory or not.
For example, if you had been ridiculed by others at a school, that school might make you feel anxious even if you forget about the incident.
This is why you might experience anxiety without being in real danger.
But with practice and experience, we can overcome these instinctual fears.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is one of the most popular kinds of therapy that targets our negative ways of thinking which are distorting our attitudes towards ourselves and the world around us, and corrects them to help us become emotionally and mentally balanced.
1. Managing Through Awareness
When your social anxiety is the result of learned reaction, looking for logical explanation for this type of anxiety isn’t likely to help, one the contrary it can make the anxiety worse.
If you find your heart rate rapidly increasing or hands start shaking, for no apparent reason, as you enter a room full of strangers, then this is an anxious reaction trying to protect you from a threat.
The anxious reaction could be the result of an emotional memory of a time when you had a negative experience in a similar situation in the past.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, you need to be aware that your mind is trying to protect you, but what you’re experiencing isn’t life threatening so you don’t need to fight or flee.
Recognize that your mind is misreading the situation and is sounding a false alarm.
Awareness that the situation is not dangerous might not always remedy the situation and stop the overwhelming response, but it is a key first step.
2. Managing by Learning through Experience
Learning through experience can help you reduce or eliminate unhelpful anxiety.
For example, if you want to change the mind’s anxiety response to talking to a stranger at a party, you’ll activate the memory circuits that relate to talking to strangers, and only then can new connections be made and the mind taught to respond differently.
By exposing ourselves to situations or objects that make us anxious, challenging the old association and realizing that nothing bad happens, we can develop new connections that eventually overpower the old ones that create fear and anxiety.
There are two kinds of exposure: gradual exposure and abrupt exposure.
The gradual approach, also called Systematic Desensitization, involves experiencing feared situations or objects in a gradual manner. You may need to start with being in social gatherings and then gradually, as you get more comfortable, begin participating in the conversation.
The more abrupt approach of the exposure treatment is called Flooding, and while it is a far more intense approach, it can provide relief from social anxiety much more quickly.
Instead of gradually building up to the fearful situation or object, the person is thrown straight into the most anxiety-inducing situation and asked to stay with it until the anxiety subsides.
3. Calming the Anxiety Response
When in danger, our brain initiates the emergency arousal system: the fight, flight, or freeze response, providing us with extra strength and alertness. This response is extremely helpful in a dangerous situation.
But when there’s no actual danger. This response limits our ability to think and respond to the anxiety reaction in a logical way. This increases our anxiety response further and we can become stuck in a negative feedback loop.
The following exercises can help both, the aggressive fight-or-flight response, and the freeze response to anxiety:
i) Fight or Flight Exercises
By taking deep breaths you can direct your body to switch from the sympathetic system’s stress response to the parasympathetic system’s relax response.
* Take a deep breath through your nose for two seconds and then breath out slowly through your mouth for 5-7 seconds.
* Repeat another two or three times. Then try to breathe normally for about a minute and then repeat the exercise again.
This exercise is designed to bring you out of your thoughts and feelings back to the present moment:
* Sounds: Notice what sounds you can hear in the surrounding environment. Don’t strive to hear sounds, rather allow the sounds to come to you. Every time your attention wanders away, gently and with compassion, bring it back to the sounds.
* Objects: Notice up to three objects you can see in your surroundings in as much details as possible (their shape, color, texture etc.). Each time your attention wanders away from the objects, gently, bring it back to the object.
* Now try to engage in the present moment and pay attention to what is happening in your environment.
This exercise is particularly useful when you feel like you are losing control of your emotions. It will enable you to act more calmly and effectively.
* Pause for a moment. Breathe. Notice your breathing for 10 to 20 seconds.
* Notice what is going on inside your mind and body. What is happening in your body? What stories are you telling yourself? Observe your thoughts and emotions and look for some space.
* Bring your awareness back to the present moment. What can you see and hear? Try to engage with what is happening around you without judging.
ii) The Freeze Response
When the brain assesses fighting or fleeing the situation is not an option, the limbic system can activate a state of freezing. This can save your life when you’re can’t put up a fight or run away. The person or animal attacking you might lose interest and leave you.
But just as with the fight-or-flight response, the freeze response can also be triggered in relatively safe situations.
Do Something Active
* Find something active you can do during the moment you feel frozen. Call someone on the phone or tidy up, the key is to do something that interrupts the freeze response.
Often when people experience the freeze response, they become too anxious to do anything. They might avoid work or other commitments. By interrupting this response, you create some momentum that allows you to engage in activities that may have seemed overwhelming beforehand.
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#2. Managing Anxious Thoughts (ACT)
Our mind can interpret neutral or harmless sensory information (sights, sounds, smells, touch) as threatening and activate anxiety response.
For example, you might walk into a room and find someone looking at you and smirking. You wonder what he’s smirking at? Only to find out that he’s on the phone and isn’t even aware of your presence.
But the mind can also independently produce its own distressing thoughts without receiving sensory information. This is what happens when you worry about a future event.
Even though the anxiety is created by your own thoughts, it’s as strong as the anxiety you experience from a real situation or threat.
Although we are more consciously aware of this type of anxiety created by anxious thinking, interrupt it and change it, we often develop longstanding patterns of thinking and ingrained habits that makes it difficult to notice these thoughts.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (often abbreviated to ACT) is an evidenced-based psychological intervention that can help you manage your social anxiety using acceptance and mindfulness strategies.
ACT starts from the assumption that negative thoughts are not inherently problematic. It makes no effort to reduce, challenge, eliminate or change negative thoughts.
In fact, negative thoughts are only considered problematic if we get caught up in them, give them all of our attention, take them as the absolute truth, allow them to control us, or fight them.
The ACT approach presents three key skills to help us effectively manage thought-based anxiety: defusion, expansion, and engagement
Thinking is important. It allows us to learn from the past and plan for the future. But when unhelpful thought or stories dominate our mind, it can take up our full attention and start dictating our behavior.
“Fusion” is the act of getting caught up in our thoughts and considering them to be absolutely true.
By defusing and separating yourself from our unhelpful thoughts, we become aware that they are nothing more than thoughts that have little or no effect on us.
As an analogy, visualize yourself as a bus driver, and every thought you have is a passenger that gets on (and off) the bus. You can imagine yourself talking to them and arguing with them. Or you can allow them to chat, knowing that they can’t hurt you and focus on the road ahead.
Instead of distracting yourself from uncomfortable feelings and sensations or trying to get rid of them, we can learn to deal with them effectively using expansion. This refers to the ability to open up and make room for these feelings and sensations.
Accept that they are there and allow them to pass through without impacting your behavior. Don’t fight them, simply allow them to come and go in their own time.
This isn’t to say that we want them or approve of them. it simply mean to stop investing our time and effort in fighting them.
While being anxious isn’t a problem, disengaging from your experience is, and the more you focus on your unhelpful thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, the more disconnect from the present moment you become.
Engagement is being present and actively involved in what you’re doing instead of being lost in your thoughts. It helps you focus on the present experience despite your unhelpful thoughts and uncomfortable feelings.
Engaging with a Neutral Activity – Pick up a task or activity you find neither pleasant nor unpleasant and engage with it fully. Focus on all the actions and physical sensations of the task at hand. If your mind wanders, bring your awareness back to the activity.
Engaging with a Pleasant Activity – Using the same principles as above, stay present when doing a pleasant activity (eating a nice lunch, walking your dog, reading a book, sitting in the sunshine, etc). Connect and engage with the task fully. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the task.
Engaging with a Task You Have Been Avoiding – Practice engagement when doing an activity or task you have been avoiding. It could be something you have to do but have been putting it off for a while. Connect or engage with the task fully through the five senses. If your mind wanders, bring your attention back to the task.
#3. The Social Anxiety Action Plan
Coming up with a plan to tackle your social anxiety is important to get you started. Don’t make the change too big that it feels overwhelming and discourage you.
Take action using small incremental steps. This will help you gain momentum, build your confidence and develop a growth mindset.
The plan should include the following steps:
1. Choose the social situation
2. Create an intention
3. Practice visualization
4. Simulate the physical symptoms
5. Complete the exposure treatment
And then repeat with the same social situation or another one until you feel more comfortable.
1. Choose the Social Situation
Choose the social situation that you want to tackle first. Start small so that you don’t immediately get overwhelmed, and choose the situations that are holding you back from living your life fully.
2. Create an Intention
Intentions can shape our thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Set an intention to change the way you think you are perceived in the chosen social situation. This will dramatically change the way other people see you.
* Write down what you believe is the firstimpression you currently make in your chosen situation. Think about how you normally show up in this situation, how you talk, what body language you use and what your expectations are of the situation. Then describe how does that cause other people to perceive you?
* Describes what you want your first impression to be and how you’d like to be other people.
* Write a short statement to describe what you project to others today and what you will project to others tomorrow.
For example, you might write “today that I am shy and timid, but tomorrow I will be more confident and engaging.”
3. Practice Visualization
Visualization is a mental rehearsal, or mental practice, during which you create or recreate an experience in the mind.
It is like playing a film in your mind of the social situation you intend to undertake. This is a useful tool to use before stepping out in the real world and apply exposure treatment.
If fact, MRI scans show that the brain doesn’t distinguish between an imagined or actual experience.
Try to make the visualizations as real as possible. Practice visualizing each step of the exposure treatment at least three times.
4. Simulate the Physical Symptoms
This is especially important if physical symptoms of social anxiety are a particular problem for you.
Practice exercises that stimulate these symptoms before you do the exposure treatment. For example, do intense physical exercise to raise heart rate.
5. Complete the Exposure Treatment
Choose a type of exposure (gradual or abrupt) that you think is more adequate for your chosen situation.
Create an exposure hierarchy that will help you start with the component of the chosen situation causing anxiety the least and focus on completing that component before moving to the next one.
You should find that as you progress through the steps, you confidence grows. Keep in mind that the action of confidence comes first, the feeling of confidence comes second.
So don’t wait to feel confident before taking action, take the action and confidence will come later.
Need more techniques to beat your social anxiety? check out this article: Treating Agoraphobia & Panic Disorder: 9 Steps to Overcome Panic Attacks
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Portions of this article were adapted from the book Social Anxiety: Seek Your Inner Peace, © 2020 by Alex Munoz. All rights reserved.
Portions of this article were adapted from the book Overcome Social Anxiety and Shyness, © 2017 by Matt Lewis. All rights reserved.