Your mind races. Your palms sweat. The words don’t come out of your mouth right, if they come at all. We’ve all been there at one time or another. And some of us get it worse than others, and more frequently. Social anxiety.
Nobody wants to look stupid or be embarrassed. But since it’s not like your life is on the line, why is social fear so bad? There’s an answer…
While it’s hard to remember what a broken arm feels like, it’s quite easy to remember all the times you felt mortified in public. So it’s not surprising that research shows social pain is actually worse than physical pain — because you can relive it over and over again.
Individuals can relive and re-experience social pain more easily and more intensely than physical pain. Studies showed that people reported higher levels of pain after reliving a past socially painful event than after reliving a past physically painful event. And the old saying is true, often the fear itself is much worse than whatever you’re afraid of. Research shows being afraid you’re going to lose your job can be worse than actually losing your job.
Perceived job insecurity ranks as one of the most important factors in employees’ well-being and can be even more harmful than actual job loss with subsequent unemployment. And the advice you usually get on how to deal with fear is dead wrong. What happens when you suppress your feelings? Your ability to experience positive feelings goes down — but not negative feelings. Stress soars. And your amygdala (a part of the brain closely associated with emotions) starts working overtime.
From Handbook of Emotion Regulation, experimental studies have shown that suppression leads to decreased positive but not negative emotion experience (Gross, 1998a; Gross & Levenson, 1993, 1997; Stepper & Strack, 1993; Strack, Martin, & Stepper, 1988), increased sympathetic nervous system responses (Demaree et al., 2006; Gross, 1998a; Gross & Levenson, 1993, 1997; Harris, 2001; Richards & Gross, 2000), and greater activation in emotion-generative brain regions such as the amygdala (Goldin, McRae, Ramel, & Gross, 2008).
But there’s a way to deal with fear and anxiety that neuroscientists, the ancient Stoics and mindfulness experts all agree on. And it’s not that hard, read:
How To Make Fear Less Scary
There are a number of specific techniques for reducing those awful anxious emotions:
- Mindfulness recommends “noting” troublesome thoughts like fear. Recognize and accept them to let them go.
- Neuroscience advocates “labeling.” (Frankly, this is a lot like noting but backed by some PhD’s and an fMRI.)
- Stoicism has “premeditation.” That’s when you ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and realize it’s not that bad.
- Neuroscience also recommends “reappraisal.” This is reinterpreting your feelings with a new story that makes them less scary.
A random bunch of tips? Nope. So what do they all have in common?
You've got to use your brain. You've got to think. Some might reply, “I am thinking, I’m thinking about all the awful stuff that could happen if I embarrass myself. In fact, I can’t STOP thinking about it!” But you’re not thinking. You’re reacting. Fight or flight. Like an animal would.
Look, our ancestors didn’t spend millions of years climbing to the top of the food chain so we could respond the same way a lizard does. We have this shiny new prefrontal cortex and can use it to fight fear. In fact, you already have and you probably didn’t realise it.
Ever had so much going at once that something which would normally scare you just doesn’t? That’s not random. When you’re thinking brain — the prefrontal cortex — is highly engaged, it slams the brakes on feelings. And you can use this trick deliberately. Anything that gets you thinking actively can smother anxiety. Resources that are used to perform a cognitive task are no longer available for emotional processes. Accordingly, people can rid themselves from unwanted feelings by engaging in a cognitive activity, such as doing math equations (Van Dillen & Koole, 2007), playing a game of Tetris ( Holmes, James, Coode-Bate, & Deeprose , 2008), visualizing scenes such as sitting in a double-decker bus driving down the street (Rusting & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1998), sorting cards ( Morrow & Nolen-Hoeksema, 1990), responding to colored lights ( Christenfeld, 1997), or filling out bogus questionnaires ( Glynn et al., 2002). (In fact, this effect is so powerful, I recommend you don’t think too hard when you’re feeling good — because it can suppress those happy emotions just as easily.)
Now we’re talking about social anxiety, and it’s not like you can start doing your taxes at a party to feel less anxious. That’s okay. We can do one better. What should you think about? Your fears. Yeah, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. “Face your fears.” Actively. With your brain switched to “on.” Neuroscience research shows when we avoid scary things we become more scared. When you face your fears they become less frightening.
Brain imaging findings suggest that extinction may involve a strengthening of the capacity of the PFC to inhibit amygdala-based fear responses (Phelps et al., 2004). Several approaches to treating anxiety disorders such as PTSD and phobias have been shown to be effective in promoting extinction. In essence, these therapies encourage the patient to confront the fear and anxiety head on. And that’s what each of the techniques I listed do in one way or another: they engage your thinking brain to take over for the emotional brain and get a handle on what you’re feeling. You can try them and see what works for you. Or you can put together a fear-busting cocktail combo to really drop the hammer on that anxiety.
Alright, now that we understand the underlying brain trickery, let’s look at how each method works so you can crush that social anxiety:
- Noting/Labeling - Give the feeling a name. (No, don’t call it “Phyllis.”) Just tell yourself what you are feeling. Yes, it’s that stupidly simple. “I’m feeling anxious.” By naming it, you’re shifting gears in your brain. It’s no longer an overwhelming feeling from your emotional amygdala anymore; now that it has a label your prefrontal cortex takes the reins.
- From The Upward Spiral - In one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact. With “noting”, some mindfulness practitioners like to take it one step further and instead of saying, “I’m feeling anxious,” they say, “There is anxiety.” This sounds really weird but it makes sense through a mindfulness lens: you are not your thoughts. Just because something goes through your head does not make it you. It’s a passing feeling; one of a zillion you have each day. No need to identify with it. Okay, you slapped a label on that feeling and dampened it. Bravo. But how do you really engage your thinking brain and take fear-squashing to the next level?
- Stoic Premeditation - Thoughtfully observe Phyllis — I mean, your fear. Observe your fear — and actually increase it. Imagine the worst that could happen. You are stripped naked in front of everyone and begin farting showtunes. I know, this sounds terrifying. But imagining the worst is especially useful with social anxiety. Why? Is someone going to stab you to death for saying something stupid? No. Do you live in a tribal society where social ostracism means you will be exiled and starve to death on the savannah? No. So you’re not really afraid of what other people will do, you’re afraid of the feelings it will cause in you - embarrassment, shame, etc. News flash: you have control over the latter. They’re in your head. And nowhere else. Visualize the worst and you’ll see it’s really not that bad. How do I know? You laugh about some of the embarrassing things you’ve been through in the past, right? So I recommend you just start laughing now. You hit yourself with the worst possible scenario and you can handle it. Awesome. But you might be anxious that you’re still going to feel anxious. Fine, fine. We got another arrow left in the quiver. And this one’s powerful. This guy is the tactical nuke when it comes to dealing with fear and anxiet
- Reappraisal - Most people think their feelings are realer than real because they’re so visceral. We have a hard time denying what we feel. Well, that’s wrong. Just because you feel it doesn’t make it real. Feelings aren’t a satellite dish receiving signals of eternal truth. Feelings come from beliefs. Change the beliefs and the feelings change. From Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long: In one of Ochsner’s reappraisal experiments, participants are shown a photo of people crying outside a church, which naturally makes participants feel sad. They are then asked to imagine the scene is a wedding, that people are crying tears of joy. At the moment that participants change their appraisal of the event, their emotional response changes, and Ochsner is there to capture what is going on in their brain using an fMRI. As Ochsner explains, “Our emotional responses ultimately flow out of our appraisals of the world, and if we can shift those appraisals, we shift our emotional responses.” You say something at a party. Everyone starts laughing. You think they’re laughing at you. How do you feel? Hold on, my bad, turns out their laughing with you. Now how do you feel? See? Change the story and your feelings change. Harvard researcher Shawn Achor taught bankers to reappraise “stress” as a “challenge.” What happened? Here’s Shawn: We watched those groups of people over the next three to six weeks, and what we found was if we could move people to view stress as enhancing, a challenge instead of as a threat, we saw a 23% drop in their stress-related symptoms. It produced a significant increase not only in levels of happiness, but a dramatic improvement in their levels of engagement at work as well. Similarly, when I spoke to a Navy SEAL, an Army Ranger and a Special Forces instructor, they all said that reappraising their arduous training as a “game” — rather than something that would make or break them — was key to getting through it.
Yay, we’re done… Actually, not yet. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Rather that treating your fear, wouldn’t it be better to not have it in the first place?
What’s one of the primary sources of this anxiety? And how can we nip that in the bud? Don’t Be An Opera Singer. When you’re feeling anxious in a social situation a lot of thoughts are going through your head: Will I bore them? What do I say? What if I embarrass myself? How do I impress them? See a pattern here? Your brain sounds like an opera singer warming up: ME ME ME.
When I spoke to Robin Dreeke, former head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program, what did he say was key to connecting with people? Suspend your ego. Robin said “Ego suspension is putting your own needs, wants and opinions aside.” And Robin’s right. Don’t worry about impressing or not-screwing-everything-up. Research shows when people are meeting someone new they don’t evaluate the interaction by what you said — they evaluate it based on how well they think they performed.
So do you see the problem here? Why so many conversations are awful? Because your brain is going ME ME ME. You need to break the cycle. So try: YOU YOU YOU.
When you’re focused on yourself, you are literally being self-conscious. And that breeds the fear and anxiety. So focus on the other person. It’s simple: listen to what they have to say and ask them to tell you more.
It will make the person you’re talking to happier. Studies show people get more pleasure from talking about themselves than they do from food or money. Talking about ourselves—whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money and it’ll probably make you happier. Researchers found that happy people are ten times more likely to be other-oriented than self-centered. This suggests that happiness is a by-product of helping others rather than the result of its pursuit.
I know what the super-anxious are wondering right now: But how do I reply? I might say something stupid. Allow me to “reappraise” this for you and “make it a game.” Below is the empathy scale researchers use to score replies. More points are better. Via The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure:
6: Shared feeling/experience
5: Confirmation of an emotion’s legitimacy
4: Pursuit of the topic
2: Implicit recognition (but changing the topic)
1: Perfunctory recognition (autopilot)
(Aim for 5’s and 6’s.)
- 5’s give people emotional validation. And we all crave that. When they talk about feeling scared, you respond, “That sounds terrifying.”
- And 6’s are what turn acquaintances into close friends. Sharing feelings. “Same thing happened to me. It was awful.”
And that’s how you start to go from ME ME ME to YOU YOU YOU to — finally — US US US.
We have covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn how even if everything goes completely wrong and you do embarrass yourself, that can be a good thing
Sum Up, here’s how to overcome social anxiety:
- Use your brain: When you’re thinking more, you’re feeling less.
- Note or label: Give the emotion a name and it won’t overwhelm you, Phyllis.
- Premeditate: “What’s the worst that could happen?” It won’t. And it’s not that bad.
- Reappraise: Change the story and your feelings change. Stress can be a challenge. Adversity can be a game.
- Don’t be an opera singer: Me Me Me to You You You to Us Us Us.
In a classic study, researchers had subjects evaluate three job candidates. One had lousy scores, the other was nearly perfect, and the third had the same rankings as the perfect one but during the interview he spilled coffee all over his suit. Guess who they thought most highly of? The fumbler. Why? He seemed more approachable. He wasn’t so perfect as to make people envious. Being too impressive can backfire. Perfect is too perfect.
So put your brain to work fighting that fear. And get out of your head and into their head. You’re not the only one who feels socially awkward. Help others feel relaxed and you’ll find you relax too. And stop trying to impress.
You don’t need to be interesting. You need to be interested.