Science-based advice from a cognitive behavioral therapist.
Everyone experiences social anxiety differently. And not just because this type of anxiety can be triggered by a wide range of situations, ranging from public speaking to making small talk or going on dates. Rather, the feeling of anxiety itself usually manifests in different ways: it doesn’t always look or feel the same. In fact, it rarely does.
Here are a few common ways in which social anxiety manifests itself—along with science-based tips from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
1. Reframing our worries
Sometimes, we experience the most intense anxiety when we are anticipating a social event to come. That is, we begin to worry as soon as we learn of an impending social event (say, we receive an invitation for a party or are given a work assignment that will entail a presentation). We get in other people’s heads and run through a million different scenarios in which things go wrong. We might even go so far as to convince ourselves that it will be a disaster and that there will be no coming back from it. We might catastrophize. We might panic. We might even freeze.
Sometimes, we might be able to avoid the situation altogether, thus experiencing short term relief—at the cost of never learning that it wasn’t as bad as we had anticipated. Other times, however, we might not be able to avoid the situation and might have no choice but to endure it with great distress (or resort to crutches like drinking or over-preparing).
When we experience a lot of anticipatory anxiety and worries, it can be helpful to practice “cognitive reframing” exercises to change how we think about these worries. Some useful questions to ask ourselves are: 1) What is the likelihood that the feared consequence will happen? 2) If it does, what is the worst that could happen? 3) Is there another way of interpreting this situation? and 4) What would we tell a friend in a similar situation?
Another exercise to try is to gradually and slowly approach those situations that we are tempted to avoid because of our anxiety. This is called “exposure” and it’s a very complex process, as it entails doing those very same things that make us anxious. As such, it is recommended that you practice it under the care and guidance of a mental health professional (see Find a Therapist).
2. Making Room for Our Anxiety
Some people may experience the most intense anxiety when we are in the midst of the dreaded social situation.