Bob Van Oosterhout

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Dealing with Social Anxiety
Bob Van Oosterhout 8/18/2011

Being uncomfortable or afraid to talk with people is a common but complicated problem that usually takes weeks to months of consistent practice to resolve.  It seldom helps to push ourselves to try harder “to fit in.”  This simply increases tension which tends to be a significant cause of the problem in the first place.

When stress builds, our body, mind and emotions act as if there is a short-term emergency.  All non-essential functions are shut down.  This is a survival mechanism and is the reason why the stress response works against us in social situations.  The energy and focus required for fight-or-flight are the opposite of the capabilities needed for relaxed conversation.  Our body is charging up for action under stress.  There is no time to relax, listen, or discuss.  Our mind focuses narrowly on potential danger.  There is no room for trust or casual interaction.  Other emotions constrict as fear dominates.  There is no capacity for empathy, compassion or understanding.

Being in a state of stress during social interactions makes it difficult for things to go well.  We interpret this as a failure or shortcoming which increases the stress response, making in more likely we will be more stressed the next time.

The first principle for resolving social anxiety is balance.  When balance is restored to the autonomic nervous system through natural rhythmic breathing (diaphragmatic breathing), our body and brain regain the capacity for listening, understanding, and empathizing.   Regularly practicing grounding allows us to break up patterns of tension that feed that stress response and recognize when tension starts to build and stop it from interfering with what we are doing.  Regular use of a rhythm phrase (thought focusing) allows us to refocus thoughts that create tension and make us self-conscious.  Daily meditation gives us the mental flexibility to look at things from different points of view and build our capacity for empathy and compassion.

Acceptance is another important principle.  We will always build stress when we think we “shouldn’t” be feeling, thinking or acting a certain way.  Accepting that social anxiety is a common problem that will take some time to resolve frees us from self-recriminations that build more stress.  It takes the pressure off, which allows us to see ourselves and others more clearly.

My experience in working with people with social anxiety indicates that this “problem” actually serves a function.  People who don’t “fit in” tend to have different ways of looking of things and a potential for creativity that is often lacking in those who have joined “the crowd.”  Our culture puts a lot of pressure on young people to “fit in” and many suppress their creativity and individuality in order to do so.  People with social anxiety resisted this tendency for good reason but then blamed themselves for shortcomings which can be easily resolved and developed over time.  The principle of acceptance involves realizing that we may not “fit in” in all situations.  When we stop resisting it, we can choose how, when, and to what extent we want to engage in relationships.

Accepting that we may be uncomfortable in social situations at the current time allows us to develop strategies to adapt and cope.  It keeps us from trying to impress others (which is the worst way to build relationships) and allows us to make clear choices that maximize our comfort and effectiveness.  Accepting the possibility of rejection actually reduces it since we become more ourselves when we are not worried about how we are performing.  It also prevents us from becoming uncomfortable about being uncomfortable which  creates an endless, self-escalating loop of discomfort.

The third principle that has been consistently helpful in resolving social anxiety is to Clarify.  Reflecting on what skills are needed for positive social interaction and how we can develop them puts us on a path to developing healthy and meaningful relationships.  The ability to listen, empathize with, and understand another’s point of view is a basic social skill that requires learning and practice.  (People who have had social anxiety tend to be better at this than most people because they have focused on developing it.)  Listening involves focus and reflection.  Empathy involves understanding emotion.  Counseling can be helpful in developing both these skills.  A good counselor will develop an empathic relationship and serve as a model for effective listening.  There is evidence that an empathic relationship helps develop and build the capacity for empathy in our brain.   

Clarifying involves seeing people and situations through a larger frame with a clear filter, and focusing on what is unique and interesting about another person and the topic of conversation rather than what is wrong with us.  Clarifying takes our mind in the opposite direction than the stress response which views through a narrow frame, filtered through fear, and focuses on evaluating our performance.  Clarifying puts insults and rejection into context and allows us to see that people who might treat us that way tend to be insecure which significantly interferes with their potential for having fulfilling relationships.

When we clarify, we realize that one social interaction does not define a relationship unless we see it that way.  There is room for misunderstanding and false steps when we look at a larger picture that includes the fact that we are learning and improving.  Clarifying the frames that other people seem to use to view their world allows us to see things from their perspective and speak in terms that they are more likely to understand and accept.

There is another consistent pattern that has become evident in people with social anxiety in my work over thirty-plus years.  People who become socially anxious tend to have a greater sensitivity than average folks.  In short, they seem to have bigger hearts.  They seem to have a greater capacity for compassion and caring for others than most people.  Initially, these gifts make them more vulnerable to being hurt, but that changes when they realize that hurt is a temporary emotion that passes in time if they don’t resist or dwell on it.

People who suffer from social anxiety often believe they have low self-esteem.  In my experience, self-esteem is simply a matter of seeing yourself clearly.  When you recognize your gifts and limitations, you can focus on developing your gifts and adapting to your limitations.  It is not so much a matter of “high” or “low” self-esteem as it is becoming ourselves by developing our own unique potential.