The pandemic has rocked the whole world over the last 8 months. It has really affected our way of life and has turned the world into a different kind of place. That place has forced us all to adapt. Adapt to a lack of structure, a lack of certainty and a lack of direct social interaction. The lack of social interaction may have increased your social anxiety, both in general but also thinking about returning to a 'normal' life.
You may be feeling anxious about things like social occasions, returning to the office or general social interaction. If you are, then you should know you are not alone and there are lots of great techniques (just below!) you can do to help yourself overcome anxiety.
A Quick Reminder!
In one of Pocketcoach’s previous articles, we discussed what anxiety is and where it comes from. Anxiety may be defined as the human body’s physical response to danger. It is made up of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. It is essentially an overreaction of the fight or flight response to stimuli in our environment. It evolved to help us survive when there was danger in front of us (like a lion) but in the modern day, it can be triggered when there is no real danger in front of us (like feeling anxiety when making conversation).
Anxiety is really common, in fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported around 264 million people suffer from anxiety globally. So, when you hear people say “you are not alone”, they really do mean it, you are not alone.
Learn to manage anxiety in only 5 minutes per day
But What To Do?
There are lots of different techniques you can use to help yourself overcome social anxiety. I am going to discuss 5 simple, yet effective approaches.
1. Write Everything Down! Then Rate It..
As we mentioned before, social anxiety is a reaction to a perceived danger that isn’t actually harmful. The reason it feels like it is, is because of our perception (our thoughts, feelings and behaviours) of reality. A great way to challenge the perception that a perceived danger is harmful is by starting to write everything down.
Ok, so maybe not everything... However, writing down your thoughts, feelings and behaviours when you are feeling anxious is a really great step in identification and awareness. It helps you to compare your anticipated feelings with what actually happens. You can start to create a hierarchy with a 0 to 10 system, 0 being no anxiety and 10 being a panic attack. For example, thinking of going to the party (4) to starting a conversation with a stranger (9). It is entirely up to you how you want to design this, but the end result should allow you to compare the perception of reality vs the actual reality.
2. Challenge Negative Thoughts
Writing down those thoughts can also help you when challenging negative thoughts. Sometimes referred to as negative self-talk, these thoughts are about oneself, others, or the world and are characterized by negative perceptions, expectations, and attributions and they are associated with unpleasant emotions. By having your negative thoughts written down, you can see clearly what they are and if they are appropriate or not and begin to challenge your predictions.
As we talked about in our guide to dealing with anxiety, there are two common ways to deal with these thoughts. Firstly, you can take the approach of acceptance. This is found in acceptance and commitment therapy and the main aim is understanding the possibility of not believing every thought. Secondly, you can practice self-compassion. This works by shifting the relationship we have with ourselves, taking a positive approach and challenging any negative thoughts. With practice, the positive thoughts become more common and you either have less or are less aware of the negative thoughts, leading to less social anxiety.
3. Practice The Anxiety
Now we have the anxious predictions written down, with a hierarchy, you may feel like you want to confront your fears about social events. Initially, you can just imagine each level of fear you have written down. For example, you can imagine that you are going to the party, but you keep that image in your mind until your anxiety drops. At this point, it can be useful to remember to challenge any negative thoughts, too.
After this initial phase, you can decide to go to the party, acknowledge your anxiety is there and remember it is ok to be anxious, it will pass. This is what happens during this phase, you may feel some anxiety, because you are exposing yourself to the situations you feel anxiety in. However, with further exposure, you can get used to carrying on doing things regardless of the anxiety and it gets easier as time goes by.
4. Muscle Relaxation
Muscle relaxation is a great way to reduce social anxiety. Different types can also be used to help with your sleep hygiene, too. One of the most common methods is something called a ‘Body Scan’. This is a type of meditation that focuses your attention on different parts of your body, progressively. After each step, remember to continue breathing slowly and evenly and feel the relaxation after releasing tension. Here is a quick example:
- Feet: Increase the tension in your feet and toes, as tight as you can, over 10 seconds. Slowly release the tension for 30 seconds.
- Legs: Slowly increase the tension in your calves, then your quadriceps and thighs over 10 seconds. Now, gently release the tension over 30 seconds and feel the calmness.
- Buttocks: Gently increase the tension in your buttocks over 20 seconds. Now, slowly release the tension over 30 seconds. Remember to breathe evenly.
- Arms and hands: Slowly make a fist with both hands, pull them into your body and hold for 20 seconds, squeezing. Then, release them over 30 seconds.
- Neck and shoulders: Raise your shoulders up towards your ears, holding for 10 seconds. Gently release, for 30 seconds, and feel the tension fall away.
- Jaw: Tense your jaw, holding for 10 seconds. Release, slowly, for a full 30 seconds. Remember to breathe slowly.
- Forehead: Tense the muscles in your forehead, holding for 10 seconds. Now, slowly release tension over a long, slow 30 seconds. Feel the relaxation and continue breathing, slowly.
You may have heard of this before, but it really is one of the best ways to deal with social anxiety. Breathing affects our nervous system, lymph system, immune system, digestive system and our endocrines - basically everything. Breathing techniques are effective, holistic exercises that can help to increase oxygen levels in your bloodstream and therefore let the brain know it is safe to relax. A great example may be the 4-7-8 breathing exercise:
4 - breathe into your belly for 4 seconds
7 - hold your breath for 7 seconds
8 - breathe out audibly for 8 seconds
Repeat the process 4 times.
There are many other ways to overcome your anxiety. These ones are simple, effective and work really well for social anxiety. The world has not been itself this year and so it is absolutely ok if you haven't been too. If you are feeling socially anxious after the pandemic, remember these techniques. If you need some help with them or are feeling anxious in general, check out the Pocketcoach app.