When we feel afraid or anxious, we are responding to a threat. When we experience social anxiety, we are almost always responding to the abundance of associations & memories from past social interactions.
We have a primitive brain and survival system that long for connection AND we have felt unsafe when we were hurt and betrayed in relationship. We have a nervous system skewed to notice danger that registered all of that. It’s no wonder we feel anxious thinking about that party, meeting or holiday dinner.
Being more familiar with the threat through inquiry helps us to stay more stable and grounded in the present moment. We then have access to our adult self and are more able to tune in to our intuition about actual threat. Here are some suggestions.
- Down-regulate your sympathetic nervous system over-arousal with six second exhalations before you go and while you are there. Trauma pioneer Peter Levine recommends exhaling with the syllable Vooo.
- Refresh your memory about Emergency Practices here. Decide that if you start to feel panicky, you will do box breathing or one of the other practices to settle your nervous system. The Senses practice or 4-7-8 and other breathing practices will stop the escalation.
- Do this three part social anxiety inquiry, visualization and strategic planning.
Social Anxiety Inquiry
Without detail, we associate the whole event as dangerous. Let’s see specifically what is triggering the anxiety. It might be one person or one part of the event. Maybe we dread walking into the room then we relax once we get there and the event is underway.
Walk through the event in slow-motion, stopping whenever you feel anxious. Down-regulate your sympathetic nervous system over-arousal with six second exhalations as you are doing this practice. Remain aware of your breath and body.
When you feel an increase in anxiety, pause there and use the inquiry tools of Tapping, Tracing or Shifting Focus until you feel more settled.
Walkthrough Strong and Grounded
Now vividly imagine it turning out well. Use all of your senses – sight, sounds, smells, and textures. You approach someone with a smile. “I am so happy to see you!” They smile back. You are both enjoying yourselves.
Feel it in your whole body. Your face and jaw are soft. Your voice is smooth and confident. Your shoulders are relaxed and you are breathing with ease. If there is a moment of awkwardness, you exhale a few times and recover quickly.
Rehearse this often. Feel it in your whole body. You are calm and grounded. You can handle this.
Use what came up during the inquiry to strategize handling difficult parts. Your mind might want to compulsively rehearse what might go wrong. Don’t go along with that. If you notice that is happening, remind yourself it is not helpful or necessary, tune into your breath, relax your body or do something to distract yourself.
We only need a few simple strategies. If Aunt Sally has a few drinks and makes a comment about your weight, you could say “I am not comfortable with this. Please do not comment on my body” and walk away. Think ahead to someone who might be an ally during the event or bring someone. What are the deal breakers? What is a simple plan to handle them?
- Calming practices you can do in public including holding your own hands, 5 4 3 2 1 senses practice (silently), hugging or standing near a friend, or looking for a friendly face.
- Stay grounded in your body. Notice the sensation of the soles of your feet on the floor and your seat in the chair. Relax your forehead, jaw, shoulders and stomach.
- Come back to awareness of your breath by noticing the softness of your belly as you exhale or the coolness of the air flowing in your nostrils as you breathe in.
- Breathing out six seconds or longer activates our body’s relaxation response. Do this when you’re listening, then when you speak, talk in longer sentences or don’t inhale between shorter ones.
- Focus on someone else: I’m so happy to see you. How are you?
- Look for someone who seems anxious and go over to them. Sample conversation starters with strangers: How do you know the hosts? What do you do for work? What do you do for fun? Where are you from? Do you like to travel?
- No shame zone. Anxiety is not a flaw in your personality. Your system is using evidence from the past and responding to a threat. You can heal this through present moment awareness.
- Resist any compulsion to ruminate over the awkward parts or something you said or feel like you shouldn’t have said. Your mind might now bring up the perfect response to something but that moment is past. It isn’t helpful to keep going over and over something in our mind.
- Congratulate yourself! You made it through. Treat yourself to something you enjoy.