How to escape the vicious cycle of social anxiety
Aaah yes, scavenging Reddit. It’s good to procrastinate!
Spreadsheet and whiny colleagues could wait. I needed some distraction. Busying myself by saturating the mind with semi-useless data.
I featured this scheme:
Huh,…. wow. That’s interesting.
What a analytical way too look at social anxiety.
Also highly relatable.
I used to be scared of interaction with strangers… fuck I was anxious in general. Meeting new people was the worst thing in the world. Honestly, trying to be ‘myself’ while socializing was a foreign concept to me. Yuk! I tried going to parties. But I would just run out or distract myself with irrelevant shit. Mobile phones guys, best invention for the socially awkward.
Eventually I didn’t even try anymore. Social events were off the agenda. All while telling myself I didn’t care.
“People don’t need me, and I don’t need them.”
In the weekends I would just wallow in pity somewhere,… distracting myself with porn, games and movies.
Not how I exactly imagined my life to be,…
Till at a certain moment, the misery switched into a realization that this shit HAD to be different.
“When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.”
- Avatar Aang
(Thanks obsessive anime habit)
With help from old friends and advice from the interwebs: I slowly crawled out bed (the pit of despair). Slowly yet steadily becoming more social, confident and relaxed.
I took time and energy — but it was worth it.
So when I stumbled upon this scheme — I thought, let’s share the wealth. Using this to systematically tackle issues. If this scheme applies to you — try using the following tactics to leave this vicious cycle.
(Note — I talk about anxiety problems that are not physiological in nature, like a serotonin deficit. But psychological in origin.)
But know this: It does means hard work and commitment. You have to change your behavior and thinking. Your current mode isn’t working.
Before your try anything. Define WHY you want to learn this!
You want to stop feeling lonely?
You want to make new friends?
You want to find a SO?
You want to be yourself in groups?
Whatever it is…. get it crystal clear. Slowly growing out of your socially anxious habit isn’t easy. So when shit hits the fan. And all you want to do is scream around and wave your arms. Reference your why to stay on course and motivated!
It will definitely take a few tries. But heck, you have only one life. Time to get the most out of it! Don’t be satisfied with one attempt. Try and fail, till you succeed!
So all disclaimers out of the way, hahaha, let’s take a look again at this Social Anxiety Loop.
Every step in the scheme is a chance for breaking free. There are tools and techniques to disrupt the loop. The more often you do, the bigger the chance you will leave this depressive orbit for good.
Let’s first take a look at the underlying basis:
0. Long held beliefs about being no good in social situations
S0. Adopt a growth mindset and slowly change limiting beliefs
The overarching theme. Limiting beliefs.
The problem is: you actually don’t believe you are any good in social settings. We all have certain beliefs in our head. They dictate our behavior in big ways. For a large part experiences, upbringing and media imprint these in our minds. Often unjustifiably though.
Random incident can create believes. Though arguably not backed by statistical evidence. Yet you can live by it for the rest of your life. Always referring to that one time you screwed up. And that why: “you are not a social person.”
Problem though, it’s hard to disprove. Because the script is self fulfilling.
You belief you are not social -> so you act unsocial -> you believe you are not social -> Et-ce-te-fuck-ing-ra!
Though I dare to say, it’s not a set characteristic. But lack of a skill. Namely social confidence. A skill you can aquire.
Are there not a lot of people that are socially confident? Are they any different? No actually, they are not,… except for how they think.
But your inner voice will tell you — “you are just not that way.” Time for a firmware update people. You need to condition that grey yello! Your autonomous thinking should learn to ‘know’,… or ‘feel’, that you can be social. That you can have the skill.
The way you are is not set in stone.
That’s why, if there is one book I want to violently upload in your cranium. It is: Mindset.
Unfortunately, there is no neural uploading, yet…. So, voila. the tldr:
- There are two typical mindsets. A fixed and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is believing who, what and how you are is fixed. Growth mindset is believing that you can develop, who, what and how you are. They are both real if you believe in them. If you want to grow in life adopt the growth mindset.
Or to quote an older mofo, who obviously got plagiarised:
“He who who says he can and he who says he can’t, are both usually right”
- Henry Ford
So if your current beliefs are limiting — you can change them! Through studying, practice and fi- fa- fucking determination.
“I’m no good in social situations” — can be — “I am totally comfortable in social situation”
“I’m a poor mixer” — can be — “I am a great mixer and make friends easily!”
“I’m just the quiet guy” — can be — “I can talk or be silent when I want — I feel comfortable anyway.”
“I just can’t [action] because of [arbitrary reason].” — can be — “I can and I will do [action] DESPITE [arbitrary reason]!”
Now you might think: “Thanks for the motivational speech and all. But there is also reality.”
I know there is a real world beyond these pages. One we have all have to deal with everyday.
However, this reality you experience is shaped by your thinking. Think about how negative can influence your life. Yet how on a good day all, that same ‘reality’ seems so beautiful.
Realise how more constructive thought patterns can influence your experience!
Next consider using the following strategy. The ancient trick in becoming self aware and accepting.
Bet you heard that one a thousand times before. Hahaha. But honestly, this is a 4000+ year old tradition. And it works! Name me any other ritual that has been around for that long!
Meditation makes you aware of your monkey mind. Seeing it screaming stupid shit all the time. Or better put: You become aware of your thoughts. And experience what underlies said thoughts.
Anymore verbal explanation would do disservice to the experience. It’s not something easily explained — because it goes beyond words and concepts. It is truly something experiential.
All right, enough big picture and theoretical shit.
Let’s talk about more actionable steps.
1. Before the social situation
S1. Prepare to get in a good mood
So there is some meeting you need to go to. It will make you anxious just thinking about it. Why not prepare emotionally. Instead of fretting about it in advance, get yourself in a good mood.
Do what lifts you up.
Maybe do something uncomfortable. Like taking an ice cold shower or running 10k. It might feel awful, but after it you will invigorated, ready to take on another challenges.
Do whatever works for you. Get yourself out of fretting mode. And in to fuck yeah mode!
2. Automatic negative thoughts
S2. Actively re-frame your thoughts
So this just happens. It’s out of your direct control. It sucks.
Having your inner critic saying ‘you won’t be able to do shit’. Making you awfully unmotivated.
“I am just the quiet guy”
“I am not going to cope”
“People will judge me”
These thoughts stem from your limiting beliefs. Setting you up for failure. Nothing is decided yet. But being stuck in this thought pattern ensures you won’t have a good time.
Let’s refer to thoughts in your mind, to letters in a bowl of soup. A highly sophisticated metaphor.
The surface is your consciousness — underneath are your unconscious thoughts. So at the surface are a bunch of ingredients, but underneath the surface there is an unknown variety of other ingredients.
Same like your mind, under the surface is the bulk of the content. But you can only see what pops to the surface. In this case; negative thoughts.
Relative quantity determines the chance of a certain ingredient popping up. So there is a lot of onion in the soup — you see lots of onion at the surface. Pick up the onions throw ‘m out. And replace them with meatballs. Voila, you will see more meatballs popping to the surface.
This analogy is parallel to Freud’s metaphor of the mental Iceberg. You can’t change what pops up in your mind. But you can change what you do with your thoughts. And what you put back in the bowl.
(When forcefully adding a whole lot of fucking meatballs, you are basically using the culinary equivalent of positive thinking. Let’s discuss that another time)
So how can you change the ingredients?
First of all, cultivate an objective awareness. Become conscious of your thought process. Take note when negative thoughts pop up.
As soon as you realise you have a negative thought. Redefine it! Change the story. Replace the ingredient! Switching up your mental habit for the better. Use one of these two methods.
1. Take YOURSELF out of the equation
If a thought pops up like: “I am just shy” — rephrase it.
Instead of embodying the shyness in your inner narrative. Tell yourself: “I acted shy”. Making your actions ‘shy’- not yourself. A subtle way to change the story you tell yourself.
Replacing ‘being’ with ‘having done’.
2. Change the perspective
If you think something in the line of. “People are going to judge me”
Rephrase it in positive potential. Change how your narrative evaluates.
So instead rephrase in your head:
“People haven’t gotten the chance to get to know me — I will express myself better next time”
By actively changing the ingredients in your head — you slowly influence your unconscious process, and thus the story you tell yourself.
Changing how you act in the short term — while conscious of it. But also in the long run — being unconscious of it. Add your own ingredients for a delicious meal!
3. Physical Symptoms
S3. Meditative breathing
Anxiety doesn’t only disturb your mental peace. Your physical balance get’s wrecked as well. Tension, sweating, a parched throat.
What is that all about? Well your body got scared. It get’s in fight-or-flight mode, your autonomous stress setting.
This tension is due to your emotions. As said, it is hard to directly influence your emotions. You should try an indirect approach.
Influence your physical body — which in turn influences how you feel.
In this case you want to calm your body by meditative breathing.
Sit down if you can — close your eyes. And breath in deep and slow breaths. 4 seconds in 4 second out. Really really deep and slow breaths.
While doing that, listen to the sound around you. Experience feeling the chair, feeling your feet on the floor.
Feel what happens in your body — and focus on your breath.
In,….. out,…. in,…. out,…. try maintaining this rhythm for a few minutes.
Notice how much more calmer you are.
Feels better right?
By breathing this way you actively get your body out of a stressed state. Into a relaxed state.
Use this whenever feeling stressed or anxious.
4. Avoid social situations
S4. Reward or blackmail yourself
Cancelling, the path of least resistance.
Ooow, how creativity peaks when finding excuses.But if you want to learn and overcome, you need to go to social events. But if you don’t motivate yourself, you won’t go to many events.
So assuming you are serious in overcoming your anxiety. You need an even other stronger motivator than your anxiety. That till know get’s the better of you most of the time. Since there is little reasoning with emotions — there needs to be an emotional incentive.
Why not give yourself a reward if you go? Treat yourself! Buy yourself a new book, game or clothes if you DO go.
Or better yet, punish yourself if you don’t do it.
How about making a bet with a friend. You give your friend a 100 bucks. If you don’t pull through on your commitment, your friend will give it to a charity.
Still not motivated enough? Make it even more devious, by agreeing to give it to an organisation you strongly oppose! You don’t go? That’s 100 bucks for Scientology! Motivated yet?
Outsource this hassle by using a service like Stickk!
Set up this blackmail when feeling no pressure, yet committed. So if push comes to shove — you have an incentive to learn. Or be very willing to lose money. (FU if anything get’s donated to Scientology!) I know it is cruel. But, hey that is why it will work.
You need to get out of your anxious cycle any means necessary.
5. During the social situation
S5. Prepare social situation
So there we are. Now you HAVE to be social.
Not knowing how to act is a primary reason for anxiety.
Though luck though — you have to practice this skill. But you can prepare!
Well it says much more — so if you are serious in preparing, give it a read as well.
Often times, you just don’t know what to say. So in preparation, practice some opening scripts and questions. Practice these in your mirror. Try it as much as you need. So the lines will just fall out of your mouth, when you need them.
Go full Mr Miyagi on yourself.
Practice this shit, a 1000 times, not knowing why. Wax on, wax off! Practice this so much it becomes second nature.
What to prepare? Here are some openers:
“Hi, how are you?”
“Hi, who are you?
“Hi, I don’t believe we have met”
“I am [player 1], nice to meet you [player 2]”
And practice these questions:
“So tell me, what is your story?”
“Hey I love your [genuinely compliment item], where did you get it?”
“What was your highlight of the week?”
“What personal passion project are you working on right now?”
As well as follow up ‘why-question’ to practice.
“Why do you feel that way?”
“Why was that your highlight?”
“Why are you passionate about that”
The first words are the most difficult. But I bet you, no matter how strong your anxiety, after 1000 iterations, you can easily say any sentences in any situation! That gets the hardest part out of the way.
Want to have even better questions in advance? Try looking up something about the host and guests — so you can be considerate through your choice of subjects and questions.
Also, view the social event as practice!
You are there to practice your social skills. No pressure. So whether you fail or succeed. Doesn’t matter! You are learning from the experience.
6. Negative focus on self
S6. Re-frame thoughts and focus on others
So you’re confronted with negative thoughts again.
“I am sweating so much”
“I look so stupid”
“People think I am weird”
Annoying — out of control — mental chatter!
Refer to point 2 again. Keep actively re-framing your thoughts. But next to that — I implore you to focus more on others.
Don’t stand there thinking of what you are doing ‘wrong’. Instead focus on how you can make sure other people have a good time.
Shift your attention away from yourself. Say hi to people, introduce yourself, ask questions. Try offering people a drink or helping the host.
You might feel like wallowing in pity. But don’t make this about you. It’s a social event — not an ego event. Be interested instead. Think how other people might want to be treated. Maybe they feel anxious as well.
You’ll see, by focusing on others, a lot of your symptoms will subside.
7. (Increased) physical symtpons
S7. Meditative techniques again
Still experiencing stress symptons? It sucks. But again — you can calm yourself.
Revisit point 3 — do some meditative breathing.
You can’t go full lotus seat during a meeting. But you can put your focus on your breath. Breath slowly — and focus on the sensations of your inspiration and expiration. Consciously slowing your breath.
Reducing anxiety and relaxing through slow deep breaths. While focusing on the physial sensations will reduce your mental chatter as well.
8. Safety behaviours
S8. Learn eye contact and initiating conversation through practice.
So as you have been tackling these issues. It’s probably already easier for you to handle yourself.
But you might still cope evasively. Since you are out of your comfort zone — the need to feel safe is natural.
Practice and preperation can get you a long way. And in due time, you will feel more comfortable in social setting.
But untill then — you do need to put yourself out there. There is no easy way to do it
So I get it — it feels easier , more comfortable to avoid eye contact or siting in the corner playing with your phone. But you are here to tackle your social anxiety..
But unfortunately there is no hack for avoiding social evasion. You’ll have to learn by doing!
9 After the social situation
S9. Evaluate and prepare
You did it! You went out there and tried to better yourself!
Now just take it easy and unwind.
It was obviously hard to do. But props for you, you did it anyway! Whether it went well or not — you practiced and learned!
Now it’s time to evaluate. Objectively reflecting is essential for deeper learning.
Don’t judge yourself harshly. Instead analyze what went well and what didn’t. How was your inner critic’s influence? How did you act, in spite or due to stress? How in turn did that influence your feelings and thought?
Analyze and learn. Learn what you should keep doing and what you can do better next time. Reflect and write your thoughts down. So you know what you can improve next time.
Recap your motivation and be proud of yourself. You pushed your boundaries! Which is an awesome accomplishment!
10. Negative thoughts
S10. Don’t identify — reframe thoughts — reiterate your battle plan
You still find yourself stuck in an abusive frame of mind? Still punnishing yourself with thoughts like:
“I looked so stupid!”
“I am such a loser”
“Other people don’t get me”
Reframe: Again, ,again, again and again! Keep on reframing your thoughts.
“I did something stupid, I will learn and do better next time”
“I may have failed, but by trying I learned”
“It’s cool people don’t get me, next time I give them the chance to get to know me”
Take hold of your thoughts. Don’t be a slave to this uncontrollable process in your mind. Actively feed your subconscious more constructive views.
As long as you keep on trying, you will keep on learning and will eventually overcome this!
All right. Ten different exits out of the loop. Hope this helps growing out of your habit and ultimately your limiting beliefs! It takes time and grit — but it’s so worth it!
Still wondering where to start? Still questioning why your bed feels better than laughing with friends? If you have any questions. let me know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the fast readers and hyper scrollers — the quick recap:
S0. Adopt growth mindset, and get a grip on your thought process through meditation
S1. Get yourself in a good mood by doing what lifts you up.
S2./S10. Actively reframe your thoughts to be more positive.
S3./S7. Use meditative breathing to calm yourself down
S4. Start rewarding and or blackmailing yourself to practice being social.
S5. Be prepared how to handle basic social conduct, this is your time to practice.
S6. Actively seek out others and focus on bringing them comfort and joy.
S8. Remember it is practice. Despite noticing your problems — take it easy and learn pro-actively.
S9. Evaluate without judgement. Learn and adapt — so you will do better next time.