What Can I Do About Stress?

What Can I Do About Stress?

The Stress-Response Cycle: How to Move Through Stress

To follow up on my last post, it’s time to get practical! What do we do with stress? We’re often told to reduce our stress by taking on fewer responsibilities when we’re feeling overwhelmed. That certainly can help, but what’s more important is to learn to move through the stress response cycle so that when we are faced with stressors our bodies have the capacity to handle them. This requires learning to listen to our bodies and our emotions.

 

Don’t Confuse the Stressor with the Stress

A stressor is something that causes stress, such as a semester of school. Stress is that feeling of fight, flight or freeze. Often, we believe that we’ll feel less stressed once we’ve dealt with the stressor. I often tell myself that when the next term at school is over, I’ll feel energized and happy again. Then, the end of term comes and after a week I notice I’m still feeling exhausted and irritable. This is because I was confusing the stressor with the stress. The stressor may be long gone and successfully conquered, but the reason I still feel irritable and exhausted is that my body hasn’t moved through the stress response cycle and come out the other side.1 Can you relate? Let me explain.

 

Stress-Response Cycle: Listening to our Bodies

Our body’s natural tendency in times of stress is to move through the beginning, middle and end of our response to stress. When we are in fight, flight or freeze, a lot of adrenaline is pumping through our bodies. Our body’s natural tendency is to find a way to expend that energy. With fight, it would be throwing punches, flight would be to run, and even in freeze, our natural tendency when we come out of freeze is to shake. Once we’ve expended that energy, our natural tendency is to find safety and to rest. This is the full cycle: trigger (beginning); energy expending (middle); safety and rest (end).1

Unfortunately, in our culture we’ve been taught to suppress the messages we get from our bodies. Our culture is uncomfortable with feelings and so we’re told to suck it up; we’re told that everyone is stressed and that’s just what life is. We override our body’s messages because they’re not always compatible with work or with the social context at hand. When we keep overriding the messages our bodies send us, our bodies become stuck in a state of stress. When we never feel like we can escape the feeling of stress, we start to cope in ways that are less healthy, such as developing addictions or lashing out at people when we don’t mean to. This is because there’s so much pent up energy and it hasn’t had a chance to move through us.1

 

How to Complete the Cycle

We probably don’t want to be fighting people when we’re stuck in traffic or running out of our cars after a car veers into our lane. Thankfully, there are more practical ways to complete the stress-response cycle.

 

The Middle Part of the Cycle: (The part where you let the energy out)

  • Physical activity: This helps to re-calibrate the nervous system. It lets your body complete the middle part of the cycle and expend all of that adrenaline that was secreted from the various stress-related triggers in your life. Any kind of physical activity will do, as long as it gets you moving and gets your heart-rate up.
  • Allow yourself to have a good cry or a primal scream. The kind of cry where you sob for 10 minutes and then have a big sigh of relief. This lets the emotion move through you instead of getting trapped in your body.
  • Journaling: Writing your thoughts down can sometimes offer a feeling of release and relief. You can keep an ongoing journal of your thoughts and feelings and/or you can write them down and then rip them up. The act of ripping up the pages can also be relieving.
  • Art: Finding creative ways to express emotion and dispel stress. You might think you’re not particularly artsy, so maybe you want to try coming to something like our Open Studio Sessions to start where you can get some gentle guidance and try some new things out?

 

The End of the Cycle: (The part where you rest)

  • Seeking affection from someone you trust. This is proven to be a very effective way to calm the nervous system.
  • Identify people and places that you can trust to provide space for you to feel your feels.
  • Sleep: Do what you can to prioritize it, and seek help from a doctor and/or counsellor when you’re having consistent trouble sleeping.
  • Grooming: For some, it can be meditative and give a feeling of self-care.
  • Engaging in anything you find

 

Throughout the Cycle:

  • Mindfulness: Start cultivating a mindfulness practice, even if you start out with just one minute per day.
    • Mindfulness allows us to notice what we’re focusing on, notice what we’re feeling and then have control in deciding what we want to focus on and how we want to express that feeling.
  • Headspace is an app that offers a free mindfulness series to get you started, and the app allows you to start with mindfulness exercises as short, or as long as you want.
  • Counselling: A counsellor can help you learn to move through your stress response cycle in a way that feels right for you. They can also help you to make sense of stress responses and emotions that feel confusing and stuck.

Remember, this can be very difficult, especially if you’ve grown up in a culture that teaches you to suppress your feelings and your body’s signals.

The most important part of moving through the stress response cycle is to be patient and kind to yourself. You’re learning something new, it takes time and you don’t need to do it alone.

 

References

Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY

Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY

What is Stress?

What is Stress?

How many times over the past month have you said that you feel stressed? Once a month? Once a week? Once a day? Three times a day? Is even thinking about this question stressing you out? If you answered yes to any of those questions, this article is probably for you.

We talk about stress all the time! So often, in fact, that the word stress has almost lost its meaning. So, what exactly is this thing we call stress?

Stress is an undifferentiated name for the impact emotions have on our bodies2 In other words, it’s a bunch of feelings that are stuck in our bodies and lead us to feel exhausted or irritable or high strung, etc. There are two main different types of stress: Acute Stress and Chronic Stress.

 

Acute Stress

Acute stress is a normal part of everyday life. It happens when a stressor is short term and has a clear beginning, middle, and end. An example of an acute stressor may be giving a presentation at work or at school. Your heart starts pounding and you notice you’re sweatier than normal under your armpits and you maybe even feel like jumping up and down. The key here is that you give your presentation, it ends, you feel pretty okay about it, and you rest. The stress is over.1

 

Chronic Stress

We experience chronic stress when we’re exposed to a stressor for a long period of time. Examples of chronic stress might be working overtime for many days in a row, or working high-stress jobs in general. Other examples may be long term emotional or physical abuse, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In all these cases, our bodies respond to the ongoing stress by continuously secreting stress hormones that eventually negatively impact our mental and physical health.2

Sounds a little bleak right? You might even be a little mad at your body for reacting in such a way when you just need to work a little harder this year to get that raise, so if your body could just quiet down and stop with the tantrums, you could get this done…. or maybe that’s just me. When I learned about our body’s survival mechanism (the Fight/Flight/Freeze response), I became a little less mad at my body. It turns out that without that stress response system, we wouldn’t survive. Maybe if you feel the same way I did, you’ll be able to forgive your body too.

 

Fight Flight or Freeze: Your Body’s Survival Instinct

Your body’s first priority is always to keep you safe. Its ability to ensure your survival rests on its “Fight, Flight or Freeze” system within your central nervous system (CNS). In response to danger, your body mobilizes to either fight, escape (flight), or freeze. This process occurs faster than we can consciously think, it’s an automatic threat protection system built into each of us.3 4

 

Fight

Fight can also be thought of as our rapid anger/fear response. When we are in danger or when someone we care about appears to be in danger and it seems like we could overpower that source of danger in order to stop it, we go into fight mode. This is what happens in those moments when you might feel like you’re in a “blind rage.” You might react by punching or yelling because your central nervous system (CNS) has determined you are in danger and you need to fight your way out. 3 4

An everyday example of the fight response for many people is driving in heavy traffic. Someone cuts you off and you feel your heart pounding, your face gets hot, and you may start yelling in very colourful language from within your car (maybe you even gesture with your middle finger out of your window, the universal North American sign for “I will fight you!”).

 

Flight

This can be thought of as the fear/anxiety response. Your CNS determines that the source of danger is too frightening to face head-on, so the best chance of survival is to run. Your heart pounds, you get a burst of energy and your digestion slows down as the blood from your stomach gets transferred to your legs and arms, so you can move quickly. 3 4

In terms of our driving example, you might notice this feeling when a car has veered out of its lane and is coming toward you. There’s no time to think about your next course of action so your body mobilizes and you either slam on your brakes or you veer onto the shoulder to get out of the other car’s way.

 

Freeze

You go into a state of “freeze” when your CNS determines that the source of danger is too terrifying and too powerful for us to be able to successfully run from or fight. The emotional and/or physical pain is also too intense for you to take in the moment. Instead, you freeze, which allows you to not feel the intensity of the pain. In Freeze mode, our bodies become stiff, our minds go blank, and our brain becomes so overwhelmed, it stops recording memories. For some, this may feel like an out of body experience, for others it may feel like complete numbness. 3 4

Going back to our driving example, freeze is most likely to occur we you actually get into a car accident. This is why many people feel disoriented afterward a car accident and may not remember what happened.

 

How this Relates to Stress 

“Stress” is another word for the fight/flight/freeze response. Chronic Stress a long-term feeling of fear/anxiety/anger that elevates your stress hormones to constantly mobilize you for fight or flight. 3

If every day you’re driving in intense traffic, you may feel constant fear/anxiety about potentially being late for work, compounded with anger at the person who’s driving too slowly in front of you. Then you get to work, and you might have a big project due and you feel fear/anxiety about whether you can get it done on time, you might also feel angry because it feels like the expectations placed on you are too high, oh and also your co-worker is a jerk. Then you drive home, same traffic issues (anger, fear). And then maybe you get home late from work, you have kids to feed and a spouse who is mad at you for working so late (you can fill in the blanks here with the anger/fears that come up with all of that). Then, you try to sleep but your brain is running around trying to solve the day’s problems, and you wake up not feeling very rested, and… repeat. This dizzying cycle of stress that is so common in our culture is too much for our bodies to take! No wonder we all feel so exhausted, irritable, and stuck.

Luckily, there are scientifically proven ways for us to become unstuck and to move through stress. It involves allowing our bodies to complete the stress response cycle. In my next blog post, I’ll explain what the stress response cycle is, and how we can use the steps of the cycle in our everyday lives to keep our minds and bodies healthy.

In the meantime, if you’re recognizing some of the signs and symptoms above, give us a call, we’re here to help!

 

 

References

  1. Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS). (2017). Acute vs. chronic stress. Understand Your

Stress. Retrieved from https://humanstress.ca/stress/understand-your-stress/acute-vs-chronic-stress/

 

  1. Greenberg, L. S. (2015) Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching clients to work through their

            feelings (2nd ed.) American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.

 

  1. Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex

            life. Simon & Schuster: New York, NY.

 

  1. Van Der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books: New York, NY
How to Make Better Decisions: Integrating Emotions and Rationality

How to Make Better Decisions: Integrating Emotions and Rationality

Seems counterintuitive right? How could it be that those seemingly irrational, often painful internal reactions (emotions) have any business in the world of rational decision making?

Many of us have accepted the tradition of believing that reason is the best guide to decision making and that emotions are a nuisance that needs to either be controlled or vented to get them out of the way of higher rational thinking.1

The truth is that we’re all much smarter than our intellects alone!1 Our emotions are a big part of the reason our species has survived for so long. Rational thinking helps us to thrive, but without emotions, we wouldn’t survive.2

For example, as Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behaviour Therapy says, “if you decided to never feel afraid again, you’d end up dead pretty fast.”3 You wouldn’t know to avoid dark alleys that seem dangerous. Your rational mind may have heard some news reports on muggings in dark alleys, but without your fear response, you’d be unlikely to apply those warnings into your own life. First, if you feel some fear when listening to the news reports on dark alleys, your brain integrates the warning into memory much quicker and much more effectively than a piece of information that doesn’t generate any emotion. Second, when you approach the dark alley, you might feel some feeling in your gut or a physical instinct to run away from it. This is your fear emotion popping up to quickly remind you to stay away from an important source of potential danger. Once you feel that sensation in your gut or that urge to run, you can then integrate it with your rational thought (which happens much slower than your emotion brain) and determine whether it’s best to go through the dark alleyway or to go around it.

Humans are wired to integrate both emotional guidance with rational thinking. The trouble is that in Western culture, we’ve been taught to dismiss the important messages our emotions send us.

 

The Middle Path: Integrating Emotion with Rationality

 

Think of yourself on a canoe, travelling down the river. Over by the right bank of the river are the rapids (your emotion brain) and over by the left side, the river is really shallow (your rational brain). If you veer into the left, rational side of the river, you become reefed and your boat can’t go anywhere. But if you veer into the right side of the river you move too fast and out of control because you’re caught in the rapids! Dan Siegel calls these the “chaos and rigidity banks.”2

 

Life on the Rigidity Bank

We get stuck on the rigidity bank because without emotions we wouldn’t be motivated to do anything.

Think of the word E-motion – emotions move and guide us. “E” stands for energy, and motion directs us to act on our feelings. Some feelings are full of energy, like anger or fear. These high energy emotions guide us to act to protect ourselves or someone we care about. Other feelings like sadness or shame are very low energy. They guide us to pull back and take time to determine what our next steps should be in the face of a painful situation like losing a loved one. Emotions help us to determine what we need in each moment. The more we understand what we feel and how to move through those feelings, the more likely we can befriend our feelings and allow them to integrate into our everyday rational life.

Furthermore, to stay on the rigidity bank, we have to push our emotions aside, and I’m sure many of us have experienced the way emotions tend to come back with a vengeance when we haven’t listened to them. Life stuck on the rigidity bank simply isn’t realistic long-term, there’s nowhere to go. 1, 2

 

The Life of the Chaos Bank

On the other hand, if we’re caught in the rapids, we may have a sense of what we need but it’s much harder to determine how to responsibly execute it in a way that will be beneficial to us and to others.2

Remember the question of whether or not to go through the dark alley? If we’re stuck on the chaos bank, then we might run away and panic and have no idea why. When we veer back toward the centre of the river, we can remember some of the reasons that we might have felt that fear and then we can take a look around and determine how to feel safe again.

 

Floating Down the Centre of the River: Integration

The key to integrating our emotion mind with our rational mind is to remember to take a step back and give ourselves some time. Our emotion mind will tell us what we are needing in the situation, and our rational mind will remind us of what’s realistic.1,2

 

How to Practice Integrating Emotion and Reason

 

Take a moment right now to be curious about what you’re feeling in your body; maybe you feel some tightness in your chest, some heaviness in your eyes or even a pit in your stomach. That’s where your emotions are sitting. In other words, when you have a “gut feeling,” your body is trying to tell you something important and you need to take a moment to listen to it.1

It might be really uncomfortable at first, but if you start noticing what’s happening in your body at any given time, you’ll also start having a better sense of how you really feel in a situation. Once you can name what’s going on it your body, you can then name your emotion. Once you have your emotion, you can start to make sense of it an decide what to do with it. That’s where your reason comes in. The magic is in the integration.1,7

This is tough work that you don’t have to do alone. A Registered Clinical Counsellor can help you to figure out how to integrate your emotion and rational mind in a way that makes sense for you. It’s also a great idea to get into the practice of regularly scanning your body for sensations. This makes it easier to know what you’re feeling at moments where it really counts.1,9

 

Just as Mister Rogers said,

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”

When we begin to attend to our emotional sensations, we can start to name them. When we can name them, we can learn to manage them and integrate them into our decision making to help us live a balanced life.

To get started, check out some free online guided body scans can be found here:

 

If you’d like some help moving forward with integrating your emotions, contact us and give us a call. We’d be happy to sit down with you.

 

References

  1. Greenberg, L.S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association: Washington DC.

 

  1. Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P.(2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing mind. New York: Random House.

 

  1. Linehan, M. (2018). DBT Skills. Retrieved from https://app.psychwire.com/courses/c2629l/course

 

  1. Living Well (2018). Body Scan. https://www.livingwell.org.au/mindfulness-exercises-3/6-body-scan/

 

  1. Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

 

  1. Rogers, F., & Neville, M. (2018). Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Tremolo Productions:

 

  1. Thiruchselvan, R., Hajcak, G., & Gross, J.J (2012). Looking inward: Shifting attention within working memory representations alters emotional responses. Psychological Science, 23(12). https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612449838

 

  1. Yip, J.A., & Cote, S. (2013). The emotionally intelligent decision maker: Emotion-understanding ability reduces the effect of incidental anxiety on risk-taking. Psychological Science, 24(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797612450031

 

  1. Goleman, D. (2017). How emotionally self-aware are you? Mindful, 36. Retrieved from https://www.mindful.org/emotionally-self-aware/
How Can I Improve My Social Anxiety?

How Can I Improve My Social Anxiety?

In my previous blog post, I talked a bit about what social anxiety is and the many strengths that people prone to social anxiety often show. I recommend reading that post first, but as a little re-cap, people who develop social anxiety are often highly compassionate, conscientious and creative. They tend to feel deeply which can either lead to anxiety or an ability to creatively explore their world with curiosity. What often stands in the way of the ability to creatively explore their world is an intense fear that they are not good enough. If you’re struggling with social anxiety, I’d like to offer some strategies to move past that fear while maintaining your many strengths!

 

How to Hold on to the Good Traits of Social Anxiety and Work Towards Growth

 

Get out of your own head and turn your attention outward

When we feel socially anxious, we tend to turn inward and start monitoring ourselves. Thoughts like “why did I just say that,” or “what if I just offended her,” circle around and around in our heads and take up all of our mental energy so we often then freeze and can’t think of anything to say.

 

When you notice this happening, turn your attention outward. Focus on who you’re talking to and listen closely to what they’re saying. This takes our focus away from what we think we’ve done wrong and frees up our mental capacity to be able to engage in the conversation with natural curiosity. Studies show that doing this dramatically increases a person’s likability, and also combats our fears.

 

Expose yourself to social situations and allow confidence to catch up with you

Don’t wait until you feel ready to give that toast or attend that party! Usually, when we start doing something, our mood follows – you’re more adaptable than you think. If it doesn’t go well the first time, keep practicing. If you persevere, the skill and confidence will catch up with you.

 

This allows you to refute the two lies your anxiety is telling you:

  1. The worst-case scenario will definitely happen
  2. You can’t handle what life throws at you

When we face social fears, we learn that we can live through it and it’s never as bad as we think.

 

tip: sign up for an introductory improv class. In improv, there is no script and you’re put in a situation where you’re forced to make mistakes in front of others. Sounds terrifying right? I thought so too so I tried it at the height of my social anxiety and it ended up being surprisingly safe. At first, it was embarrassing but then I realized everyone was being embarrassed too. Improv helps us to develop the skills to navigate unstructured social situations that cause anxiety in the real world.

 

If you drink at a social engagement, do it because you want to, not because you have to

A lot of people drink to make themselves feel more confident in social engagements; after all, it is called “liquid courage.” The problem is that if you do have a good time while drinking, the tendency is to give the alcohol the credit, not you. In reality, that person who was having a good time navigating an otherwise anxiety-provoking situation was you without inhibition. You have that confidence within yourself and you can access it with practice; in facing your fears, you don’t need the alcohol.

 

Dare to Be Average (Dr. David Burns)

A lot of anxiety comes from our belief that we need to be perfect in social situations. We believe that if we stumble over our words or pause in a conversation, people will see our flaws and reject us. There’s a whole list of “musts” that come with that belief:

“I must be entertaining”

“I must sound smart”

“I must carry the conversation for both of us”

Everyone pauses in conversations, loses their train of thought and says something awkward from time to time; it makes us human and it’s endearing. Dr. David Burns encourages us to “dare to be average.” He reminds us that people are attracted to people who own their averageness because most of us are average. It’s relatable, it’s honest and it’s human. As Dr. Kristin Neff says, “we’re all on this long, awkward journey together.” If you’ve experienced an embarrassing moment, a million other people have had that same embarrassing moment – you’re not alone.

 

Create a structure for yourself in social engagements

Simon Thompson and Ronald M. Rapee (2002) found that in structured social interactions, people with social anxiety showed a much higher level of social skill than in unstructured social engagements. Dealing with the unpredictable creates anxiety for many people so next time you’re in an anxiety-provoking social setting, create a structure for yourself. Dr. Hendricks suggests giving yourself little missions at parties such as taking to 3 people you don’t know and finding out as much as you can about them. This creates some predictability and some direction in the social interaction.

 

Dr. Hendrickson’s Tips for Making New friendships

a) Repetition – Show up!

It takes an average of 6 hangouts for someone to consider a person a friend. Many people with social anxiety become discouraged when they work up the courage to go to a social engagement and don’t come away with a new friend. But in reality, this almost never happens for anyone. The way to make new friends is to keep showing up and to see the same people over and over again. Some options might be joining a fitness class with consistent members, dropping the kids off at school and saying hello to the same parents each day or going to a café at the same time each day.

b) Self-disclosure

Many people with social anxiety have trouble talking about themselves for a variety of reasons that may feel really valid after past hurts. Dr. Hendrickson urges us to push through and to gradually share a bit about what you think, feel and do with a person you want to be friends with. Friendships are reciprocal, so gradually the other person will begin to share about themselves as well. People are generally interested in what the world looks like from another’s point of view.

c) Just be kind

Many people think they need to appear confident and competent in order to make friends. In reality, people are drawn to warmth, kindness and trustworthiness. You don’t have to appear confident, just be nice and curious.

 

Practice self-compassion

Shame feeds social anxiety, but if you can think about yourself in the same way you’d think about another person you care about, it will help you to forgive yourself when you make a social blunder that feels so painful and isolating. Dr. Kristin Neff has an amazing website full of free exercises to help build self-compassion. My favourite is the self-compassion break which is a guided mindfulness exercise that takes only 5 minutes.

Find the exercises here: https://self-compassion.org/category/exercises/#exercises

 

Counselling

Social anxiety can be completely unbearable and painful and so it can be hard to take any of the above steps on your own. A counsellor can help work with you, at a pace that feels safe for you, to remove the blocks of shame and fear that are inhibiting you from living the life you want to live. If you’re struggling, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a counsellor who can help you with this. You’re too important to deprive the world of getting to know you!

 

 

Sources

Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.

Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf

Neff, K. (2018). Self Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety

Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6 · 

What is Social Anxiety?

What is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is an intense fear about one or more social situations. It can be generalized to all social situations, or it can be activated in specific situations, such as having a conversation, meeting new people, being observed while eating, drinking, walking, etc., or performing in front of others, such as giving a speech or speaking in front of a class. According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety is the third largest mental health care condition in the world today. So, if you’re dealing with social anxiety and feeling alone, statistics show that you’re not; at least 7% of the population is right there with you!

 

Dr. David Moscovitch, a Clinical Psychologist at the University of Waterloo, discovered that social anxiety is more than just a fear of being embarrassed. Rather, it’s an urge to cover up a perceived flaw. People with social anxiety believe that something is fatally wrong with them that makes them socially undesirable, and they fear that this perceived flaw will be seen by others. Finally, they believe that when this flaw is discovered by others, they’ll be humiliated and rejected.

 

Here’s an example of a situation that someone with social anxiety might find themselves in, and their thought process:

 

Joe is an average guy, but he believes he’s really boring and that if people found out how boring he is, they won’t like him. One day while Joe was talking to his friend Martin there is a long pause in the conversation. Now, long pauses in conversation with people we’re comfortable with are pretty normal! In this case, however, Joe perceives the long pause as an awkward silence, and believes that the awkward silence confirms his worst suspicions that he is boring and at fault for the awkwardness. His brain became flooded with thoughts about how Martin must be noticing and judging Joe as a boring person, who he’d rather not be friends with. Joe’s mind is filled with even more anxiety, and he can’t think of what to say to Martin. It’s so overwhelming that he can’t bear the idea of being placed in this situation again where he might be judged as boring, so he proceeds to avoid social interactions as much as possible. In reality, Martin didn’t think Joe was boring, and he wasn’t judging him, he was lost in his own train of thought and didn’t think much of the “awkward” silence at all.

 

This is why Dr. Moscovitch stresses that Joe’s fatal flaw only exists in Joe’s mind. He perceives himself to be boring, and so finds information in the conversation to confirm that his perception is true. People with social anxiety are extra sensitive to social blunders, to the point where they often believe they’re the only ones who make them. The truth is that social blunders are part of what makes us human. Everyone is boring some of the time, we all trip over our words and we all have awkward moments. As Dr. Ellen Hendrickson states in her book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, “nothing is wrong with you, it’s just the blemishes of being a person.”

 

While it’s normal for everyone to feel socially self-conscious from time to time, “social anxiety is like self-consciousness on steroids”, as Dr. Hendrickson says – it’s a big and heavy feeling, and often very tricky to work around. Because of this, people who have social anxiety are often quite distressed and unable to function as fully in their lives as they’d like. When self-consciousness reaches this level of social anxiety, most people benefit from getting help with regulating it.

 

How Does Social Anxiety Work?

 

Social anxiety works in a cycle of fear and avoidance. People begin to avoid the social interactions that make them feel anxious because the anxiety they feel is so painful and unbearable. They understandably want to protect themselves from the trauma of feeling rejected or inadequate. Unfortunately, avoiding social situations only makes things worse because when we’re not interacting with our source of fear, the fear increases and becomes much scarier. On top of that, when we avoid certain social situations we’re also unable to practice the social skills necessary to get through them and the associated anxieties. When we feel we don’t have the necessary skills for something, we continue to avoid it and the cycle of fear and avoidance continues.

 

Are There Good Things About Social Anxiety?

 

Many people with social anxiety believe there’s something wrong with them and want to change their personality altogether. They often believe that the opposite of social anxiety is confidence. In her book, Dr. Ellen Hendrickson points out that people with social anxiety tend to have a lot of desirable traits. They’re so anxious because they desperately want to connect, and so are sensitive to the needs of others to such an extreme that it becomes a fault. In fact, psychopathy; not confidence, is the opposite of social anxiety.

 

People with social anxiety tend to be very conscientious, compassionate and caring, open to new experiences and agreeable. They have all the traits that would make a person socially desirable, they merely are inhibited by fear and an excess of shame. It’s, therefore, best to work through social anxiety by removing the fear and developing confidence on top of the amazing characteristics that are already there! It’s a process of learning to be yourself without fear. Dr. Hendrickson points out that your true self is the self you are without fear. Think about the person you are when you’re most comfortable, maybe when you’re with a pet or with a person you trust or doing an activity you enjoy. That’s who your real self is, and that person is lovable and worthy of connection.

 

How Can We Move Past Fear and Shame and Live the Life We Want?

 

My next blog post will detail eight strategies for working through social anxiety. In the meantime, I recommend picking up Dr. Ellen Hendrickson’s book How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. It is also a great idea to talk to a counsellor and see how you can work together to come up with a plan to work towards quieting that inner critic. For any question, feel free to contact us.

 

Sources

Burns, D. D. (2008). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. Harper: New York.

 

Hendrickson, E. (2018). How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

 

Moscovitch, D. A. (2009). What Is the Core Fear in Social Phobia? A New Model to Facilitate Individualized Case Conceptualization and Treatment. Cognitive and Behavioural Practice, 16, 123-124. Available from https://uwaterloo.ca/psychology/sites/ca.psychology/files/uploads/files/moscovitch_2009.pdf

 

Neff, K. (2018). Self-Compassion. https://self-compassion.org/

 

Richards, T. A. (2018). What is social anxiety? Social Anxiety Institute. Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety

 

Thompson, S., & Rapee, R. M. (2002). The effect of situational structure on the social performance of socially anxious and non-anxious participants. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 33(2), 91-102. DOI: 10.1016/S0005-7916(02)00021-6 ·