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What makes social anxiety worse?

Social anxiety is a label given to the common experience of stress and worry about being negatively judged by others. It can be felt in many different social settings or only in specific types, such as large groups, work meetings or performance situations. The reasons a person might experience social anxiety are numerous and slightly different for each individual and situation. However, there are some common ways people try to deal with their social anxiety that can worsen its impact on important parts of their life.

Introversion vs. socially anxious

Before jumping into unhelpful actions, I feel that it is important readers understand the distinction between introversion and social anxiety. Everyone falls somewhere on the introvert-extravert spectrum (some at more extreme ends than others). For at least a century, our society has placed a high value on the trait of extraversion, so it is also common for people who are naturally introverted to behave like an extravert to appear more “normal” and even to get ahead in their career. The presence of “closet introverts”, combined with the influence of mass media, can give the false impression than introversion is abnormal, and that introverts should therefore try to be more outgoing and talkative in social situations. Because of this pressure, it is common for introverts to experience high levels of anxiety in social situations because they have received a message from society that they will be judged negatively if they don’t behave like an extravert.

It is important for introverts to understand what aspects of their social anxiety are actually them trying to be extraverted, and what aspects are them not being true to who they are because of their anxiety. Sometimes I find introverted clients wanting to improve their social anxiety so they can become the person they think society wants them to be, rather than to be able to portray themselves authentically. It can be very challenging to make progress in therapy with this type of extrinsic motivation, so our work might shift more to exploring self-acceptance and self-confidence, rather than the typical “exposure therapy” that is the gold-standard method of working with anxiety.

Avoidance and safety behaviours

“Avoidance” and “safety behaviours” are the terms Psychologists use to describe and categorise actions that often make social anxiety worse. Avoidance is fairly self-explanatory, and refers to avoiding doing certain things due to anxiety. Safety behaviours are more subtle avoidance behaviours that are usually performed in the social situation in order to alleviate anxiety and prevent feared outcomes from occurring. There are countless actions that could be placed in these categories, it all depends on how often and why they are being used. Some common avoidance and safety behaviours are:

· Avoiding attending a social event and staying in your comfort zone instead.

· Going but only talking to people who are really familiar and comfortable.

· Attending but making up an excuse to leave early.

· Drinking lots of alcohol to reduce feelings of anxiety and inhibitions.

· Wearing excessive amounts of makeup to prevent people noticing you are blushing.

· Wearing baggy clothes that act as a sort of "cocoon" or way to hide.

· Avoiding eye contact.

· Avoiding talking about yourself or expressing your opinion.

· Agreeing with everything the other person says to prevent any potential conflict.

· Mentally rehearsing conversations to prepare for different scenarios and not look foolish.

Avoidance and safety behaviours are commonly used by people with social anxiety for the following reasons:

· They reduce the likelihood that a feared outcome will occur.

· They reduce feelings of anxiety in the moment.

· They produce feelings of relief and safety afterwards, which often reinforces their use.

· They increase a sense of control over the situation, which is also a reinforcing factor.

These actions are seen as making social anxiety better in the short term and worse in the long term, as people do not learn to interact with others in an open and flexible way when feeling anxious, so their anxiety often gets worse over time. Working with a Psychologist can help people become aware of their own safety behaviours, and the effects these might be having on their relationships and anxiety. They can then set goals regarding dropping certain safety behaviours and engaging in actions that will bring them a more desirable long-term outcome.

If reading this article has made you aware of your own avoidance and safety behaviours and you would like to change them, do an experiment and see what happens if you stop using them in their next social event you attend. You might feel more anxious at first, but you might also be surprised how helpful it can be to cultivate more meaningful interactions with others.

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