Social Anxiety – what to do ?

February 12, 2015

social anxietyWhy am I socially anxious ?

One of the things that I have been noticing in my practice is how often people come to see me for social anxiety problems. I also have been aware of how reports seem to indicate this malady to be on the rise in recent times in the western world. So what can we make of this ? I have started to question how much of this excessive amount of anxiety is societal and how much is learned behavior coupled with genetic predisposition.

Even without delving into how our societal values vastly influence the importance of social status and its representation through social and traditional media, and even putting aside personal history I am starting to think that a fundamental part of the problem comes from being stuck in the teenage developmental error of assuming and believing that while everyone else is worth knowing and/or has a wonderful life we are not. This makes us feel insecure (and deepens our preexisting insecurities) and puts us in a position  of being at -1 in social situations.

Let me explain: if we all realized that we are in the same boat and that everyone is as ‘messed up’ and as fundamentally OK as everyone else the way we relate would change. We would stop trying to impress others or being impressed by their seeming social success and we would relate to them as equals; as a result when talking / meeting a new person we would both start at level 0, not level +1 or -1 (better or worse than them).

The first step to beat social anxiety

Step number one then would be to question the fundamental assumption that others are better than us and decide to take a position of fundamental equality. Every time you realize you are putting yourself down when comparing yourself to someone else ask yourself the question: how do I know this is true ? Can I prove it ? What is the evidence against it ? And actively look beyond the surface.

Question your own values. What makes you worth knowing is not how much money you have or how thin you are (among other common concerns) but the unique flavor of the way you experience the world. There is no right or wrong way to experience it . There is only genuine communication of your experience and genuine interest in other people’s experience. When we genuinely tell others how we  feel about anything we connect as equals, it is easier for others to accept us and as a result our anxiety assuages.

A practical exercise to overcome your fear

Finally: think about someone who seems at genuine ease with others. What are they doing ? Model yourself after their positive qualities you wish to acquire. And when in a difficult situation ask yourself : what would this person do ? Now take a leap of faith and do it . Notice what’s different. Persist. Change takes time and effort. You will get out of it as much as you put into it.

How to overcome fear of public speaking

talking at presentationsSome people seem to be natural public speakers:  they appear charming, cool and confident ; they stay relaxed and calm throughout the entire experience. For a lot of people it is exactly the opposite: they fear public speaking more than most other endeavors and they find speaking in public a nerve wrecking experience.  So what makes someone feel one way and not the other?

Are you born good at speaking in public or can you overcome your fear and become a confident public speaker?

Understanding how our brain works

The answer to this question has to do with our brain and its neuro-plasticity: that is, its capacity to change. In order to understand how this works it is useful to know a thing or two about how emotions get processed in our brains and influence the way we behave.

The Amygdala is a very primal part of our brain that is geared for survival. By allowing us to recognize danger and immediately react to it , it makes us more likely to be able to avoid it and thus survive.

There are two parts of the Amygdala: the right side is responsible for registering risk in an immediate, profound and non verbal way, as if it were to say “oh-oh”… pay attention now!

Anything bad that has happened in the past gets registered here and since the amygdala is very alert to changes in the environment when something is seen as dangerous (whether new or related to the past ‘bad’ event previously registered) it gets activated. When this happens we become scared and as a result our sympathetic nervous system gets aroused in what we call the fight / freeze or fight response. We  experience this as getting a fast heart beat, sweating, and a general feeling of being ‘on edge’.

After the ‘panic’ physical response has been triggered the information about the event is sent to the Hyppocampus (the part of the brain that deals with the exact details of the experience) and then it all gets sent to the pre-frontal cortex so that we can analyze what happened.

People with panic and high anxiety levels have a bigger Amygdala than most. Whether this is because they were born with it or whether it developed as a result of trauma is not known but what is important to know is that is why these people might feel easily triggered by changes in the environment perceived as threatening.

The good news is that there is another part of the Amygdala whose role is to help us ‘un-learn’ : the left side. This side is responsible for comparing information, as if it were to ask “Is what’s happening now exactly the same as what happened before?’ If the answer is no, it tells the right side to knock the fight or flight response off so that we can get back to normal.

The thing is, sometimes the fear that has been triggered is so high that it over-rides everything and the left side cannot get the message across to the other side.  So in order for the right side to register that we are indeed safe we first need to be able to calm out our automatic reaction of ‘panic’. How do we do that? Simple: we breath deeply.

Why does deep breathing work ?

This works because our autonomic nervous system has two branches: one that causes arousal (sympathetic) and the other that calms us down (parasympathetic). The two cannot be activated simultaneously, so if one is activated the other cannot be. In other words: if we have started the process of calming ourselves down we cannot possibly stay aroused. Conscious deep breathing immediately activates our parasympathetic nervous system. When this happens we gradually become calm enough to allow the left side of the amygdala to ‘think us out of the danger-zone’.

How to overcome fear of public speaking

So now that you know why you feel the way you do, you are already more in control of what you can do about it. Here’s a few pointers:

  • Identify the initial panic trigger event and compare it with the present. Realize they are not the same. (This can be something as unrelated to public speaking and simple as  forgotten experiences of being bullied at school or criticized by a parent. They are often unconscious but as they still affect your present behavior they need to be identified and reframed first and this can be easily done with hypnotherapy)-Make a decision to consciously breathe deeply for at least one minute (better if five) before the event and if necessary during the presentation
  • Prepare enough to feel competent  (just like musicians or actors you need to warm up and feel prepared before you ‘perform’ so make sure you know your subject well and are confident with the content of the speech)
  • Rehearse physically and mentally (mental rehearsal is very successfully done in hypnosis as the brain does not distinguish between fantasy and reality;  when done in hypnotic trance the rehearsal can be as powerful as having experienced a positive imprinting experience of being a good public speaker)
  • Focus on the interest you have in the subject matter you are discussing to the exclusion of everything else. Self consciousness is all about worrying about how other people are responding to you. You cannot be self conscious if you are totally concentrated on something else that actually interest you. (The capacity to focus on one thing to the exclusion of everything else can be taught with hypnotherapy and it becomes easier with practice)
  • Imagine what you want to happen not on what you don’t want ! (The subconscious is a goal striving mechanism that responds to images and it does not understand negatives-  if I told you not to think of pink elephants what are you thinking about? –  So ask yourself : what is the best most positive outcome you would like from the experience? i.e. being successful, delivering a greatly inspiring speech, feeling elated and excited rather than scared and humiliated )

Above all express perfect confidence in your capacity to change. If you don’t believe it, who will?  You can change and if you truly want to, you will!

You can read more about how hypnotherapy can help you overcome your public speaking nerves here.

If you’d like help with the above techniques please feel free to contact me or just give me a ring on 075 44 24 7800.