Social anxiety typically involves avoidance of things we find uncomfortable. Learn more about why this is a problem, and what cognitive-behavioral therapy involves.
Updated: June 26th, 2022
“Just imagine them in their underwear!” is often told to those who have a fear of speaking in front of large audiences. Although it can be useful (and entertaining) to use your imagination in this way when giving a presentation. However, it’s typically not enough to overcome the anxiety those situations create.
Fear of public speaking is a symptom of social anxiety disorder. Not everyone uncomfortable with public speaking has social anxiety. Social anxiety can involve any situation between you and someone else. It could be a boss, a stranger, or someone you’re interested in. It doesn’t have to revolve around one person though; usually, it involves types of situations.
Typical examples look like these:
Judy, a very successful investment banker, begins sweating profusely whenever she needs to talk to her boss’ boss at a work event. She dreads these meetings and often feels a need to have a few drinks before starting a conversation.
Scott, a graduate student, who is usually gregarious and engaging with his family, freezes up and rarely participates in class, for fear of saying the wrong thing. He often misses out on class discussions because of this fear.
Lauren has found dating to be very difficult (and stressful) because she is afraid of not being able to maintain a lively dialogue on dates; she finds herself getting nervous, tense, and panicked beforehand. Consequently, she has decided to avoid dating altogether.
The Role of Avoidance in Social Anxiety
Social anxiety can lead to chronic avoidance of various social situations in order to escape intense feelings of anxiety or inadequacy. It may also create uncomfortable physiological sensations in the body or produce unhelpful thoughts that get in the way of our social functioning.
For people with social anxiety disorder, avoidance often maintains anxiety around social situations and can become a big problem. Indeed, 36% of people with social phobia report experiencing symptoms for 10+ years before seeking professional help.
Think of it this way, every time you avoid a social situation that makes you uncomfortable, you make your anxiety a little bit stronger. This happens via a principle called negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement in this case is the notion that when we do something that removes an unpleasant feeling, we’re more likely to do that thing again. This is the principle that alarm clocks use on us to get us out of bed; they annoy us until we turn off the alarm, and hopefully wake us up in the process. It’s also the principle that explains why nagging your partner and avoidance in social anxiety succeed in changing behavior.
But what is the behavior that avoidance helps to change? Unfortunately in social anxiety, avoidance has the effect of making us more likely to avoid going to a social situation next time. Avoidance basically ends up leading to more avoidance! Eventually, this becomes a problem. Fortunately, CBT has a solution.
One known treatment for social anxiety is exposure therapy, which is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Exposure therapy for social anxiety typically involves you facing or imagining your fears, and then through guided and repeated exposure to the situation, realizing that the fear did not actually come true.
Exposure works using two principles — desensitization and habituation. When you become desensitized to your fears, your anxiety begins to lessen. Habituation then takes over. Thus, the same situation, when presented again, does not produce the same intense reaction as the first or second time. Exposure therapy can be either imaginal (using your imagination) or in vivo (in the actual feared situation). Exposure therapy, when done correctly and consistently, can be very effective in treating phobias and fears of any kind.
A common feature of social anxiety is that certain kinds of thoughts trigger make you feel anxious. These thoughts can lead you to overestimate how nervous you will become in a social situation and underestimate your ability to interact and engage in social situations. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you to identify these distorted thought patterns and challenge them. This is quite helpful in overcoming social anxiety.
Lastly, there are also support groups for people suffering from social anxiety that can be found in your local region. Gone are the days of envisioning people without clothing; there are better options out there!
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