People think socialising is an innate skill; it’s actually one of the most learnable skills and because of COVID-19 (with its lockdowns and ensuing isolation) some of us are out of practice. So, with that in mind let me break it down for you and provide some practical tips to manage your anxiety and build those social skills back up.
What is social anxiety?
The anxiety you're experiencing is a fear response – and it kicks up in reaction to a story that isn’t true yet. From a technical standpoint it’s a link between your fear brain (amygdala), your reptilian brain and also the parts that do analysis. The best way to ease your anxiety is set yourself challenges and rewards, then take back some control around that story in your head that hasn’t actually come true yet.
Let's make a plan
Let’s think about socialising as a challenge like you would regular exercise. For example, you might say to yourself; ‘I’m going to go for a run, I don’t really want to, but I know that it’ll be good for me.’ You then put your event (or social anxiety trigger) into a similar mental framework. For example, ‘there’s a party on the weekend, I want to go but I’m feeling nervous. Or on Thursday I’m going to chat to that barista at the café.’
The reason, from a psychological point of view, is you’re starting the storytelling at that point. As soon as you commit to a plan what your brain does is begin scriptwriting the story of that event. It becomes visual and then you can work your way up to the actual event.
The psychological sweet spot when choosing the social challenge is to find something where it’ll make you feel really anxious and you’ll experience a constriction of the stomach. You don’t want to choose an event that is beyond your capability that you’ll give up on (for example, a huge music festival), or so small that it doesn’t actually cause anxiety (such as calling up a best friend for a chat).
What this really boils down to is a form of exposure therapy. Make a commitment to do something and keep pushing yourself in to spaces that are risky and make you worry but are not so risky that you give up. Then once you achieve it and you attend the party, or talk to the barista, you realise that it wasn’t so hard. Then you keep going, keep pushing to the next level up.
Another situation that comes up a lot for my clients is big work presentations and speaking events. My advice to them is to start small — you don’t go straight into a room full of executives — you give yourself the challenge of speaking for five minutes at your team WIP and then work your way up to the larger event.
The next part of the planning process is to give yourself a reward. For example, you promise yourself that if you go to the party or speak to the barista then you’ll do something nice for yourself or buy something for yourself etc. As humans we find it easier to run towards something — a goal or reward — rather than give up.
Let’s look at it this way: at the moment, what you think you’re giving up with social anxiety is security and you can’t imagine or visualise what you get in return. That’s where the reward comes into play because you’ll be giving up something really cool for yourself.
The strategy and plan above will be effective for people with mild social anxiety issues. If you’re at a point where it’s so bad that you cannot leave the house, then I would recommend you head to ReachOut — it’s a really great service with loads of useful resources. Again, it will allow you to take back some control of your situation.