How Social Anxiety Can Reinforce Itself

Photo by Kevin Lee on Unsplash

I’ve experienced varying levels of social anxiety throughout my life. I’ve been fortunate in that there have only been a few years in which the social anxiety was truly crippling — when I would avoid almost all forms of social interaction.

One of the most common pieces of advice that I’ve heard for overcoming social anxiety is to simply face my fears: put myself in social situations and push myself to interact with others, even when it feels like my brain is screaming at myself not to.

This is essentially a type of “exposure therapy.” Exposure therapy involves gradually putting yourself into situations that trigger your fears, working through the fear, and then repeating.

There’s plenty of evidence to show that exposure therapy can work for some phobias. I’ve used it myself to try to overcome my fear of heights. By regularly going bouldering, I haven’t eliminated my fear, but I have greatly reduced the severity.

From my experience though, exposure therapy doesn’t work as well for social anxiety. The trouble is that my social anxiety makes me so miserable in social situations that it ends up reinforcing itself.

The Negative Feedback Loop

When my social anxiety has been at its worst, even something as small as going to the grocery store has felt like a nightmare.

Despite that, I’ve still always tried to push myself to interact with others. I’ve even gone to events and parties where I know that I’ll be surrounded by friends and strangers, hoping to force myself into conversations.

The trouble is that my anxiety can get so bad, that once I’m around other people, I’ll barely be able to keep a conversation.

I’ve found myself hiding in the bathroom, washing my hands, again and again, to try to get rid of the sweat covering my palms. I’ve spent entire parties on the balcony smoking cigarettes, simply to avoid the crowd inside.

Instead of taking the opportunity to talk to people and try to overcome my fear, I end up just feeling miserable for the evening and leaving early.

After these awful experiences, I end up feeling even more reluctant to put myself into any social situations. I faced my fears, and it ended up just as bad as expected, making my social anxiety even worse.

These parties are an extreme example. For most of my life, my social anxiety hasn’t been quite as bad, and my social interactions have taken place on a smaller scale. The negative feedback loop still exists though.

Even just talking to someone one-on-one can cause me enough trouble that I end up struggling to carry on the conversation. Afterward, I end up just wanting to avoid talking to anyone for the rest of the day.

The Strategies That Work For Me

From my experience, there is a way to improve social anxiety by facing my fears, but it requires much more careful planning than simply walking into a crowded room.

One of the strategies that I use is to arrive at events near the beginning and leave early. This allows me to normally be at events and parties while the crowd is still smaller, and I’m less likely to feel overwhelmed.

I also, whenever possible, go with a friend when I’m going to larger parties and events. I find it helps me a lot to have someone that I know I feel comfortable talking to, to use as a kind of safety net if I’m feeling too anxious to start conversations with people I don’t know as well.

Finally, I try to attend events where there is some kind of activity going on. Board game nights, for example, provide me with a distraction that I can use to anchor myself. I’m less likely to start feeling anxious if I have an activity that I can use to help guide me through the night.

Social anxiety is something that can be managed, but blindly forcing myself into large social situations is definitely not the right strategy for me. Instead, it takes careful planning and an acknowledgment of my own limitations. I’m hopeful that with these strategies, I can continue to reduce the impact of social anxiety on my life.