How to Stop Having Social Anxiety

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How to stop having social anxiety sounds like the name of an infomercial. I can picture it now… a man is trembling and shaking… cut to the “stop social anxiety now” cure. This revolutionary cure will only cost you $14.99. But wait, if you order now, you can get two social anxiety gizmos for the price of one. If only such a gizmo existed, social anxiety would be a thing of the past–and someone would be very rich.

No, when we talk about how to stop having social anxiety, we usually talk about the known treatments. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or medication are the usual go-to’s, though these are not cures, they are treatments. You might relapse, you might not fully recover, you might… drop out… or never start in the first place.

The truth is that we still don’t have a great way to deal with this problem, namely because it’s a social problem.

Whether you want to admit it or not, social anxiety will pervade every part of your life if you let it. That means that getting help is difficult. Making that phone call is difficult. Hopefully, if you are in bad shape, someone will make it for you.

What does that leave us with?

If you’re reading this, let me be clear that you can’t plug a hole in a sinking ship with a toothpick. If your anxiety is severe, then CBT and medication are likely necessary.

But if it’s moderate, or if you are looking to deal with some symptoms on your own, then trying to help yourself is not a bad idea.

Let’s start with your core beliefs about yourself. Usually in CBT, you work backwards from your anxious thoughts to figure out your core beliefs. While this is helpful, I think it is also helpful to fully grasp what a core belief is by thinking about how you view yourself.

We all go through life with certain perceptions of ourselves.

These tend to fall in certain domains, and might be known as personality traits such as those identified by psychologist Hans Eysenck.

I like to think that certain traits kind of stick with you.

For example, are you…

Passive or aggressive?

Friendly or unfriendly?

Intelligent or dumb?

Irresponsible or responsible?

Impulsive or inhibited?

Expressive or reserved?

Active or lazy?

Moody or happy?

Obsessive or laidback?

When I was doing some reading about imposter syndrome, I found it interesting that many who live with this problem (thinking that they don’t belong in their job/position despite many achievements) grew up with a sense that they were not intelligent. While I can identify with many of the aspects of this syndrome, this one hit me squarely in the wrong way. Nope, I never thought that, because nobody told me that. I thought I could achieve anything I set my mind to. That was not one of my core beliefs.

Which was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me. Because I realized there were other areas of my life in which that was not true. Shouldn’t I feel confident in all areas that I can be the best me? What was holding me back?

I did not even realize that I held core beliefs about not being “good” at certain things.

I was never good at sports. I never expected to be good at sports. That is one of my core beliefs.

Etc.

Translate that to social anxiety, what were you “never good at” as a child? What did you “never expect to be good at?”

Dig into those questions and you will get at those core beliefs.

But here’s where it gets tricky. They are so ingrained in us that we take them as true.

I never questioned whether I could ever catch a baseball. I just assumed it was impossible. Still to this day, it seems impossible to me.

What seems impossible to you? Identify those things, and you will see where you are being held back.

Now here’s the shift—imagine, just for a moment, that you could wipe that slate clean. You are a completely clean slate with no preconceived notions of who you are and what you are like. If you start from scratch, can’t you build anything? Have you been trying to build a house on a crumbling foundation? You can’t do it. The house will never be sound.

Wipe out those core beliefs.

Every day this week, tell yourself, “I am a clean slate.” Imagine a giant eraser rubbing off the words that haunt you or point out your weaknesses. This sounds ridiculous I know. Just try it.

Oh and by the way..

In 2017, a study was conducted to develop and validate the Core Beliefs Questionnaire (CBQ). This scale had three versions: Trait version, Contigent version (beliefs related to specific situations), and Other version (beliefs about how others view you). What was found was that scores on the three tests decreased from before treatment to after treatment for social anxiety disorder. This means that core beliefs are changed through treatment. If you can get at these beliefs and change them, you might see the same effects.

Until then, I’ll keep trying to catch that baseball.

 

Sources:

Wong QJJ, Gregory B, Gaston JE, Rapee RM, Wilson JK, Abbott MJ. Development and validation of the Core Beliefs Questionnaire in a sample of individuals with social anxiety disorder. J Affect Disord. 2017;207:121-127. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2016.09.020.

Poetry Contest: The Top Five Nominees

Thank you to everyone who participated in the social anxiety poetry contest. I have chosen the top five entries that were submitted by December 31st, 2017. Now it is time to vote for your favorite! Read through the following five poems and then cast your vote in the polling box at the bottom of the page. Voting closes January 31st, 2018.

Update: The grand prize will be a Humble Bundle digital book package worth over $150 including a digital copy of my book “The Anxiety Workbook” as well as the books “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in 7 Weeks” and “Real World Mindfulness for Beginners.”

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Hold On

by Elisabeth Porter

I feel trapped in a box and tightly sealed, traveling on ship across the sea
Everything in me wants to say “Why ME??”
It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere with many hours of feeling sick
It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere with not much room to think
It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere where anxiety seems to be the only food to eat

But you know what?!? —
The box can be a blessing, the ship can be your guide, the box can be your blessing—do you know the reason why?
The box is a protection,
the ship leads a specific direction,
and the anxiety is being used to make you into a better you.

So though your feeling sick, and everything feels hopeless— hold on.

Social Anxiety

by J Michael Wright
He wanted to slam his fists into the air, wishing they would pound away at the veneer of this fake reality.

He wanted to scream at the passersby, yell that they were trapped in cells designed by digital walls and arbitrary, archaic Patriarchal rules.

You’re not welcome if you fit the following: fat, gay or trans, a person of color, female, pregnant, mentally ill, if you’re eccentric, and the list goes on.

You must be “This” white, male, straight, physically and mentally fit to ride this ride.

All others may exist until they no longer provide a use, and then it’s curtains on your goals, dreams, aspirations, bills, your ability to exist – until you find a new place – but the clock is always ticking and it’s only a matter of time before the bell tolls for thee, and the process starts over again.

Money and materials are the only ways to prove your worth, and people only look if you’re pretty based on their standards.

Screw the Golden rule; let’s adopt Platinum instead: “Treat others how they want to be treated, not how you want to be treated.”

But the cacophony of voices demanding that he conform overwhelms him, and his pleas begging people to wake up are ignored, so he crawls into a ball and wishes the World away.

It never goes away.

The harshness of this fake reality chips away at his steely constitution until there’s nothing left, and he cries from being berated by people on-line, people at work, his friends and family, drained by their desperation of being successful in this fake world.

So, he quits, and he starts the clock over and over again, but the years pass and fade, and “You’re not getting any younger, babe,” so he stresses about his future and what kind of partner can he be if he can’t properly provide.

He feels ugly, feels misunderstood, feels alone despite being surrounded by people, and all he can do is face the day, one at a time, and take things in stride because he’s not giving up, just giving in.

Home

by “Kandice”

Mind succumbed by familiar loneliness, dark, empty, distant
Hands dripping like a facet, cold, wet, tremors
Heart pounding to my eardrums, thump, thump, thump
Breath escaping my body faster than my mind, labored, unsheathed, arrhythmic
Swallowing, quickly, last night’s dinner before heads turn, pathetic, unnatural, anxiety

Another t-shirt stained brown with sweat, bleach, money, disposal
Laying next a pillow collecting tears for decades, obsession, restless, fear
Dated sweaters to hide drenched shirts daily, insecurity, emergency, desperate

Laptop in bed, lying awake with chocolates and television, safe, peaceful, home

 

My Coma Has Come

by K. A. Kumi

My coma has come.

Wide eyed, stiff necked, pulse flooded,
extremity trembled, mind muddled, sterility.

My coma has come.

Tongue spun, shame bathed, function failed,
cringe caressed, mired mood, aridity.

My coma is coming.

I’ll puke & piss & pill & pace &
pine & ponder & pray in preparation.

My coma is cold.

It sees me shivering in sun shunned of warmth universal,
yet sweating in sight of their every iced gaze.

My coma is king.

And I shall crucify myself for all witness,
ne’er shown whole, but hung of my own hand.

When my coma has come.

There’s Always Tomorrow

by John Doe

I could have been great
I still could be
I could have been free
I might still be
I could have found hope
Then I should see
That I’m no worse
Than those around me
That I too can grow
And be my best me
I’ll do that tomorrow
Today I anxiety

 

Anxiety Habits: You Become What You Do Every Day

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Anxiety habits. These might include anything from biting your fingernails to imagining the worst will happen. While everyone who lives with anxiety likely has an anxiety habit or two, most people don’t think twice about whether these habits are under their control. If anxiety is at the root of your nail biting, surely you’ve got to get rid of the anxiety somehow first, before you can stop biting your nails?

While one might think this would be the case, and it most likely is true that people who are for the most part anxiety-free don’t bite their nails (or have other habits reminiscent of anxiety), there is no reason why you can’t work backwards: start eliminating the bad habits and leave the anxiety ’til the end.

Lately I’ve been trying to follow the practices of the FlyLady.net. If you’re not familiar with this website, Marla Cilley, aka the “Flylady,” a nickname given to her when she joined a cleaning forum way back when, directs women (though I guess it could include men, her audience seems to be all women) across the United States and the world to develop good habits to keep an organized and clean home.

I’ve tried to follow the site before, subscribed to emails, etc., but always found it overwhelming. They would be off decluttering a room and I’d still be stuck with a sink full of dishes. What I realized though, was that there was a ton of motivation waiting for me on that site—I just had to put it to use.

I didn’t necessarily have to follow every new habit or direction, but if I started somewhere and did a little bit each day, then I would be headed in the right direction.

For the Flybabies, as she calls her followers, that starts with a clean and shiny sink every night that you wake up to every morning. The idea is that the sink is the central heart of the home, and when it is clean and shiny, that will eventually spread to the rest of the house. It’s supposed to make you smile in the morning when you see it.

So, I got to thinking, what would be the equivalent for social anxiety? What one habit could you practice every day that would be at the heart of managing anxiety, and would lead you to want to develop other good habits along the way? I thought about the long and hard, because there isn’t too much that is objective like with cleaning your house.

It’s not like you can say:

Okay, I’ve completed my [avoiding negative thoughts/being mindful/insert other helpful tip for coping with anxiety]. No! You’re technically supposed to do those things ALL THE TIME. So really, those are the results of your anxiety being reduced, rather than the cause of it. While of course doing these things will help to reduce your anxiety, they aren’t things you can check off a list.

They’re not like a shiny sink, making you smile in the morning.

So what then, could we do every day, at the heart of getting better, that would spread to other areas of our lives?

The shiny sink is what?—a representation of the opposite of disorderliness, the opposite of being messy, the opposite of being out of control.

So what would be the opposite of being socially anxious?

It has to be a daily habit, remember. We’re not talking about signing up for a pottery class to improve your social skills or joining a book club to be more comfortable speaking in front of others.

Just a daily habit, that over time takes less time to do, but that makes you feel good about yourself, and eventually becomes how you live your life.

Can you think of any things that people who are not socially anxious do on a daily basis?

When I wracked my brain I came up with some ideas:

-smile
-initiate conversations
-leave the house
-make phone calls
-don’t overthink
-don’t try to be perfect

Some of these are actions, some are just ways of being.

So, let’s pick one.

For simplicity, let’s give this a name so we can stop saying that we want to be the opposite of socially anxious. I like Chris MacLeod’s term “succeed socially,” but that’s not quite it.

What I want is for you to feel good about yourself. Because when you start to feel good about yourself, you will start to see yourself as a person who deserves to be free of anxiety.

To feel good about yourself, do one good deed that helps someone else every day.

We’ll give it a name at another time, but for now I want you to get started on this.

And if you’re wondering if this has any scientific backing, check out the study in the source list.

That’s it! Soon you’ll be moving from anxiety habits to a kindness habit. Let me know in the comments what types of kind acts you did.

Source:

Alden LE, Trew JL. If it makes you happy: engaging in kind acts increases positive affect in socially anxious individuals. Emotion. 2013;13(1):64-75.

The Traveling Book

Sometimes, it’s good just to have a light-hearted post. This one follows the adventures of my book, “7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety” (Now renamed “The Anxiety Workbook) on its travels around the globe.

I have to say I’m a bit envious of the places that it has gone and is likely to still go. I must thank my relatives and people I’ve never even met for their generosity in snapping photos of the book in various locations.

If you have a copy of the book and would like to share a photo of it where you live, I would love to receive it. You can send that to submissions@aboutsocialanxiety.com.

South America

The first three photos below were taken by a friend of my aunt as they traveled around South America. The first two photos are at the Falkland Islands, and the third is at the Copacabana Hotel in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

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Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

This next photo was actually taken by me! I live just over an hour away from one of the natural wonders of the world, Niagara Falls. This photo is taken from the Canadian side looking out to the Horseshoe Falls. I was visiting the Falls with my parents and my children and it was actually a grey and rainy day—not really good for sightseeing. So we stopped the car briefly while I jumped out to take this picture. Fear of heights, anyone?

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Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

This photo was taken by my aunt in Victoria, BC. This was actually the first in the traveling book series of photos and inspired some of the others. It looks like a very calm and peaceful place to be.

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Playa Del Carmen, Mexico

This is the most recent photo! My aunt-in-law Martha took the book with her to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. Have to say I am quite jealous of the warm weather they are having while we head into winter back here in Canada.

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Usefulness of Self-Help Books

Well, that’s it for now! If I receive more photos I will be sure to update this post. Remember, this is just in fun to show far a book can travel globally—and hopefully the impact it can have. Not everyone believes in self-help books, and some may even be afraid that using one may make them look “weak” or in the case of social anxiety, weird.

If self-help gets you down, think of it as self-improvement? The principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness can help EVERYONE, regardless of whether you have social anxiety or not.

Learning how to recognize your thoughts, slow yourself down, be in the moment—this is what we all know we need to do. A book might not solve all your problems, but it may give you one, or two, or a few ideas on how to cope better. If so, then it’s done it’s job.

If you’d like a copy of my book, it is available on Amazon or in some bookstores. You could also visit your local library and ask whether they accept book suggestions. While the book is workbook-style and includes spaces to write your own thoughts, you could always use a notebook to record your answers.

Social Anxiety Poems: A Poetry Contest

writing photoAttention all poets! Do you write poetry as a way to deal with your feelings? Or maybe you never have, but think you’d like to try?

About Social Anxiety is hosting a social anxiety poetry contest.

  • Poems should be no longer than 12 lines.
  • The deadline for submissions is December 31st, 2017.
  • The guidelines are simple: write about your social anxiety or social anxiety in general. Keep it to a PG-13 audience.
  • The top five poems will be posted on this website, where About Social Anxiety readers will vote for a favorite.
  • Submissions should be sent to submissions@aboutsocialanxiety.com.
  • Prizes to be announced!

The Fear of Winning

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Most of us fear failure. If you live with social anxiety, you probably fear it even more so. It might be surprising then, to realize that in addition to your fear of failure there is another fear lurking. One that you might not have thought about much or even believed could be a fear.

That fear is the fear of success.

The fear of winning.

The fear of doing well.

The fear of being recognized for your accomplishments.

Does this sound like you?

There are many reasons why people with social anxiety might fear success. At it’s core, what you are really afraid of is shaking up the status quo. As much as you might hate your life, hate yourself, hate your job, hate that you have no friends, hate your anxiety…. it’s what you know. Success… well that’s a bit scary, whether it’s social success, work success, financial success. It feels like that would come with responsibilities that you don’t know whether you can handle.

Why We Fear Winning

In the case of social anxiety in particular, you might literally be afraid of being thrust into the limelight because of your success.

Imagine winning the lottery. Writing a bestseller. There’s a reason why some authors/musicians/actors become private people—they were not prepared for what success would bring.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing either, because we all need our privacy.

How do you know if your fear of success or fear of winning is holding you back?

Ask yourself this:

Have you ever….

  • Done destructive things to handicap yourself such as drinking too much alcohol?
  • Refused to set goals so that you had no chance of success?
  • Been on the brink of success or nearly reached a goal and then suddenly changed paths to avoid going all the way? For example, not taking that last course toward getting your degree or closed down a business just when you started to attract more customers?

Another reason you might fear success is that you are worried others will be mad, envious, jealous, or hurt. If you are moving up, you might feel like you are leaving others behind. People with social anxiety are highly attuned to what other people are thinking/feeling, and you may worry that your success will come at the cost of other people’s happiness.

In fact, in Asian countries, it is actually expected that you downplay your success so as not to make other people feel bad.

Research on the Fear of Winning and Social Anxiety

Fear of success or fear of winning may be closely related to a fear of positive evaluation, which has been studied extensively by researchers in terms of how it relates to social anxiety, perfectionism, depression, etc. What we know is that fear of positive evaluation is a real problem for people with social anxiety.

People who have a fear of positive evaluation also tend to have maladaptive perfectionism, meaning that their perfectionism interferes with living life.

In fact, people who are perfectionists may actually develop social anxiety if they have a tendency to fear positive evaluation.

As a whole, the research shows that social anxiety and the fear of positive evaluation are related.

It’s quite the pickle! You are both afraid of people thinking badly of you and also of them thinking good things about you. What is a person to do?

Overcome Your Fear of Success

Beyond simply working on your social anxiety/perfectionism, there are specific things you can do to stop handicapping yourself from achieving success.

No, we’re not talking about “The Secret” here—although the message is similar. It’s not so much that what you seek you attract, but that when you are open to success, you allow it to happen. It was there all along. You were on the brink of it many times. You may have even felt it, achieved it, gotten there.. but couldn’t hold on.

I’m telling you now to let it happen.

If that feels too hard, then write down what you are feeling.

Ask yourself what you are afraid of.

Then accept your reasons for being afraid of success.

Realize that failure will always be part of success. You can’t get to to the top without falling once in a while.

But your abilities are not limited. Your skills are not limited. Those limits are ones you’ve created in your mind to protect yourself from what you fear the most.

Once you’ve decided to move past that fear, there’s nothing left to do.

Except..

Set those goals… and

Stick with that plan that is becoming successful.

And if you feel like being self-destructive, write about that too, until the feeling passes.

Sources:
Yap K, Gibbs AL, Francis AJP, Schuster SE. Testing the Bivalent Fear of Evaluation Model of Social Anxiety: The Relationship between Fear of Positive Evaluation, Social Anxiety, and Perfectionism. Cogn Behav Ther. 2016;45(2):136-149.
Weeks JW, Howell AN. The bivalent fear of evaluation model of social anxiety: further integrating findings on fears of positive and negative evaluation. Cogn Behav Ther. 2012;41(2):83-95.
Weeks JW. Replication and extension of a hierarchical model of social anxiety and depression: fear of positive evaluation as a key unique factor in social anxiety. Cogn Behav Ther. 2015;44(2):103-116.

Dogs With Social Anxiety

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Dogs with social anxiety disorder? While this may sound unusual, dogs can have fear and anxiety just like humans, and this can be expressed in relation to new situations, new people, and being around other dogs.

According to a 2016 study of 3284 dog owners of 192 different breeds, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, about 39% of dogs are sensitive to noise, 26% have general fears about unfamiliar people, other dogs, and new situations, and 17% have separation anxiety. These three issues can also be linked to behavioral problems in dogs such as aggressiveness. A dog who is afraid is more likely to become aggressive than a dog who has no fear.

Causes of Social Anxiety in Dogs

Because of the overlap between different kids of anxiety and fear in dogs, it’s likely that some part of your dog’s temperament is determined by genetic factors.

Over my lifetime I’ve had four canine companions—all of them miniature schnauzers. And, while the breed was the same, the dogs were as different as night and day.

The first and third dogs were both fearless. The second and fourth differed greatly from those two. The second was cautious in new situations, while our current dog is the most anxious one I’ve ever owned.

He is afraid of walking on solid surface floors and generally does not leave his bed. When we have large gatherings, he can’t be here, because I don’t trust him. His fear causes him to be unpredictable.

Just like people can be highly sensitive, so too can dogs. Dogs with social anxiety may be the victims of physiological and behavioral overarousal, meaning that they have deeper processing of sensory information. A 2017 study published in PLoS One developed a 32-item questionnaire to measure this sensitivity in dogs.

What they found was that demographic characteristics of the dogs had only small influence on the sensitivity of the dogs. Gender, age, age at adoption, and also characteristics of the owners, such as age, job, and communication style really had little impact.

However, experiences in a dog’s life may influence later behavior. In a 2015 questionnaire study of 3264 dog owners in Finland, published in PLoS ONE, early life experiences  were found to relate to later dog anxiety. In that study, they found that fearful dogs had fewer socialization experiences and lower quality of care by their mother as a puppy.

Signs of Dog Anxiety

If your dog becomes agitated in new situations with unfamiliar people or other dogs, look for the following signs of dog anxiety:

  • barking
  • hiding
  • licking his/her lips
  • oversalivating
  • pacing
  • panting
  • scanning the environment
  • shaking
  • whining

I know in the case of our dog, when I take him in the car and he isn’t sure what is about to happen, he pants, shakes, and whines.

What to Do If Your Dog Has Social Anxiety

  1. First, don’t respond with punishment, either verbal or physical. This is likely to just make the situation worse.
  2. Get your dog out for some daily exercise. In that Finnish study, they found that anxiety in the dogs was also linked to the amount of daily exercise. Dogs getting less exercise were more sensitive to noise and had more separation anxiety.
  3. Avoid anxiety-provoking situations if possible. For example, in the case of our dog, I put him in a kennel for the night when I know we will be having a large number of people to our house, such as at a holiday party. It’s better for our dog, and it’s better for our guests.
  4. Talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of anti-anxiety medication. This can sometimes be prescribed for dogs.
  5. Try to alter the association between the triggering event and the dog’s response. For example, in a video of the dog whisperer Cesar Milan helping a dog who was afraid of squeak toys, he gradually helped the dog to calm down by using lavender essential oil and a massage. He then paired the lavender scent with the squeak toy, so that the dog, who had learned to associate the smell with being relaxed, would now react that way to the toy as well. This is a simplified example, but you get the idea. Find a way to break the bad association (e.g., new situation = anxiety) and replace it with a new better association (i.e., new situation = fun OR treats OR relaxation).

Finally, don’t confine your dog to a crate unless that is something he or she is used to. This can just make the anxiety and panic worse. 

Sources:

Braem M, Asher L, Furrer S, Lechner I, Würbel H, Melotti L. Development of the “Highly Sensitive Dog” questionnaire to evaluate the personality dimension “Sensory Processing Sensitivity” in dogs. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(5):e0177616.

College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Context is Critical When Treating Anxiety in Dogs.

Tiira K, Lohi H. Early Life Experiences and Exercise Associate with Canine Anxieties. PLoS One. 2015;10(11).

Tiira K, Sulkama S, Lohi H. Prevalence, Comorbidity, and Behavioral Variation in Canine Anxiety. J Vet Beh: Clin App Res. 2016;16:36-44.

Disclosure:

This post may contain affiliate links for which I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase.

Taking the Easy Way Out When You Have Social Anxiety

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As readers of my articles at Verywell will know, I often encourage doing things that push the boundaries of your social anxiety. While this will be uncomfortable in the moment, the long-term effect will help you to feel reduced anxiety in those situations that you confront. What this  means is that I am not a fan of “taking the easy way out.” If I were to meet with you today and give you one piece of advice to overcome your social anxiety, it would be to avoid doing that.

While that might sound harsh—as though somehow having a mental illness is taking the easy out (it’s certainly not)—it’s meant to be a bit compelling in a challenging kind of a way.

If I were to ask you right now what some of your goals are in life, would they include avoiding that which makes you afraid and aligning your aspirations with the path of least resistance? Probably not. Or maybe yes, but deep down you might know that leaves you feeling a bit uneasy.

Take a moment right now, and write down five things you would do if you felt less anxious in social or performance situations.

  1. ___________________
  2. ___________________
  3. ___________________
  4. ___________________
  5. ___________________

That list is obviously going to vary depending on where you are in your life, where you fall on the introversion/extroversion continuum, etc.

But let’s say for argument’s sake that your list looks something like this.

  1. I would apply for a job that pays better/has more responsibilities.
  2. I would have more friends/spend more time with people.
  3. I would speak up more in conversations.
  4. I would go to more events/parties/gatherings.
  5. I would go on dates.

Remember, these don’t necessarily have to match yours either in content or level of difficulty.

While it may feel less scary, anxiety-provoking, and fear-inducing to “take the easy way out” and ignore these goals, doing so keeps you at a certain level.

It keeps you among the people that are not serious about overcoming social anxiety. People who are serious about not letting social anxiety rule their lives can do these things. And then some.

Allow me to explain why I don’t agree with living within self-imposed limits such as staying at a low-paying job because it feels easier or staying silent because then you “know you won’t make a mistake.”

What do you learn, or what are you telling yourself, if you take the easy way out?

1. It teaches you to be afraid. If you set limits on what you can or should do based on your anxiety, you are subconsciously telling yourself that your fear is warranted. What’s the worst that would happen if you spoke up in a meeting at work? Could you approach situations from the perspective of trying to make a fool of yourself? What if you allowed yourself to look anxious, made your hands shake on purpose, or tripped over your words just to see how other people would react? Try it sometime, you might be surprised how little of a reaction you get.

2.  It does not allow you to learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are the great teachers in life. Without mistakes along the way, you won’t learn. Why do we learn best from our mistakes? Once you’ve learned what not to do, the chance of repeating the same mistake twice is lessened. What social mistake have you made lately? Think back on that mistake and what you learned from it. Appreciate it as a teacher rather than a negative aspect of yourself.

3.  You develop a reputation that is hard to shake. You won’t hear this said often about social anxiety, but it does tend to be true. Once you start avoiding people, you will develop a reputation as being standoffish or unapproachable, even though it’s ridiculously untrue. This creates a vicious cycle that you can’t escape. People will stop inviting you to events, stop trying to bring you into the conversation, and even stop thinking of you for promotions at work. It’s movement in a direction that is hard to reverse once it’s started. So start small, and begin to build yourself back into someone you want to be—not someone you’ve become because of who you were afraid to be.

4. You will find your options greatly narrowed. Similar to developing a poor reputation, your options will become narrowed the more you try to take the easy way out. While at first you may not notice what you’ve done, eventually you may wake up one day and wonder who you will talk to that day. Don’t let that happen to you. Don’t bank on friends and family being there when you finally make it out of your shell. While the good ones will stay, your relationship with them will be taxed.

While all of this might sound a little harsh, it’s meant to be that way. I don’t want you to keep going down that path.

Think of it this way—you don’t have to change overnight. You don’t have to change in a day. But you want your trajectory to be “up.” You want the slope of the line to be positive, as Susannah Cahalan writes in her book Brain on Fire.

But, if you are not taking the easy way out, what are you to do?

Learning to break free from social anxiety is a topic for another day. I’ll be writing about ways to break free from the easy path soon.

For now, just make a commitment that you will try.

Tips on Using Self-Help Workbooks (for Social Anxiety)

self help photo

If you’ve stepped inside a bookstore lately, you’ve probably noticed a proliferation of self-help titles. The list of things you can improve about yourself is literally endless—and it can be hard to know who to trust or whether any of these books will actually help.

In the case of social anxiety, self-help books hold a special significance, as they can be accessed by anyone regardless of your current fears. If you’re too afraid to pick up the phone to call your doctor, ordering a book from Amazon might feel like a smaller first step that you can take.

At the same time, there is a risk with self-help books that you expect too much. A book is never going to replace an interaction with a mental health professional. What it will do is provide knowledge upon which you can act.

A study published in 2008 in the journal Professional Psychology: Research and Practice examined 50 self-help books for anxiety and depression and rated books on four main qualities believed to reflect books that would help:

  • grounded in science, brings the knowledge of experts to you (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy)
  • realistic in their expectations (not promising a complete cure)
  • offered specific guidance (step-by-step instructions, user-friendly)
  • did no harm (did not provide false information)

The 10 top-rated books from that study included Dying of Embarrassment by Barbra Markway and The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook by Martin M. Antony.

What they found was that the best books (based on their criteria) had the following characteristics in addition to those listed above:

    • focused on a limited type of problem
    • were written by doctoral-level psychologists, often affiliated with academic institutions
    • offered a chance to monitor your progress
    • addressed relapse or setbacks
    • discussed co-existing disorders or problems
    • talked about when to seek professional help

Although that study touched on it briefly, I think one of the more important qualities of a good self-help book is that it is not overwhelming.

We are all busy, and it is often easier to keep doing what we are doing than to try to make a change. While self-help books are more convenient than visiting a therapist or life coach, if they are not put into practice, they are likely to have minimal effect. You need to apply the advice in the book to make progress.

I think there are two types of books that impede translating knowledge into action.

Those that provide too much information (overload) and those that provide no plan (lack direction).

Of course, it’s possible for a book to have both of these qualities—that would be the worst of all worlds.

When choosing a book, after you’ve narrowed it down to those that meet the above criteria (as best you can, based on reviews or referrals from others), try skimming through (in a bookstore if you can, or the library or online) and read a bit. All other things being equal (as described above), I’d choose the one that is easiest to read with the best action plan (often a workbook style). I’d also choose a book that you find inspiring.

Once you’ve chosen a book, how can you get the most out of it?

  • Keep a journal. Add your own thoughts and insights. This will bring the book to life for you.
  • Complete the exercises. This might seem obvious, but don’t jump ahead. Take the time to do any exercises in the book fully. Change involves thoughts, feelings, and actions all interacting. You might learn new things about yourself that you can use as you move forward in the book.
  • Take stock. At the end of each chapter or section, take stock and think about the impact of what you’ve done. Do you need to adjust or make changes?
  • Get an accountability partner. This could be a friend or family member, or even an online group. Meet once a week to discuss what you are reading.

In the Huffington Post article, “Why self-help books rarely work,” life coach and personal growth expert Matthew Jones writes “The book can change your perspective, but you must change your life.”

I’d like to relate an example from my personal life, not about social anxiety, but that shows how books can impart knowledge, but it is up to you to take action.

A couple of weeks ago, I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a video called “The Secret Reason We Eat Meat.” I was interested, so I started watching, but soon realized that the video was over 20 minutes long and I didn’t have time to finish all of it. It started out with Melanie Joy, a social psychologist, explaining the premise of what she terms “carnism,” or the ideology that creates a meat-eating society.

So I set the video aside to return later. Unbeknownst to me, it contained graphic videos of animal slaughterhouses midway through. Somehow, I managed to jump back into the video during one of these videos. It was as though I’d accidentally clicked on a slasher film—it really was that bad. Nervously I jumped ahead a bit and watched to the end. And then I read Dr. Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows.

The book presented a logical argument regarding veganism and the secret ideology that promotes eating meat. It all made sense to me, from a logic standpoint. But if I had put that book down and went to eat a hamburger, would anything change? If I knew differently, but continued to do what I’ve always done, what was the point?

I hope that if you do pick up a self-help book, you will realize there is little point in just reading. You might gain knowledge, but you won’t change, and what you’ve learned will much more easily slip away.

If you find it hard, be accountable and then reward yourself in some way for taking action.

If you find it really hard, find a therapist to help you work through the book.

As for me, it’s been two weeks and I still haven’t eaten that hamburger.

Sources:

Huffington Post. Why self-help books rarely work.

Psychology Today. What you should look for in a self-help book.

Redding, R. E., Herbert, J. D., Forman, E. M., & Gaudiano, B. A. (2008). Popular self-help books for anxiety, depression, and trauma: How scientifically grounded and useful are theyProfessional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39(5), 537-545.

Wood, G. 3 top tips: How to get the most from a self-help book.

A Social Anxiety Advent Calendar

helping photo

Advent calendars run the gamut from ornate wooden houses with doors that open to reveal small vignettes to inexpensive mass-produced dollar store chocolate in cardboard boxes. Whatever the package, children tend to enjoy them, but as adults we often lose this tradition.

The “Make Today Happy” blog offered a twist on the advent calendar to encourage children and adults alike to make the 25 days of Christmas more about giving than receiving.

In their “Kindness Advent Calendar,” each day you are instructed to complete a task that spreads a little bit of kindness out into the world.

Imagine if you could take that premise—an advent calendar about kindness—and convert it into something that would help others but at the same time help you to work on overcoming social anxiety?

Below you will find instructions on what to do each day for 25 days both to challenge your social anxiety and to spread some kindness into the world.

Dec 1:

If you are on social media such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, share this article with your friends and let them know what you are up to this month. You might be surprised how much support you receive—and it’s an easy way to share a bit about yourself and the fact you may be coping with anxiety.

Dec 2:

Bring a special homemade treat to a friend, neighbor, family member, or colleague. Say something like “I am practicing kindness for 25 days, and I thought you might enjoy this batch of cookies.”

If you struggle in the kitchen, consider picking up something from your local bakery. This gives you two opportunities to practice social interaction, and also supports a local business.

Dec 3:

Help those less privileged than yourself by donating unwanted winter coats, hats, or mitts to a local shelter or the Salvation Army. You might even find a way to turn this into a chance to make new friends.

In my hometown of London, Ontario, Canada the group “Just a Bunch of Friends” travels the streets of the city once a month to hand out food, drinks, clothing, etc. to the homeless. Find a similar group in your area and ask if you can participate—or at least pass on items to be given away. You’ll be practicing many skills such as using the telephone and meeting new people.

Dec 4:

Some days are for reflection and rejuvenation in this advent calendar. Listen to your favorite upbeat song either on a pair of headphones or blasting through your living room and dance.

This is good practice for when people actually are watching, though for now this is just for you. (If you really enjoy dancing and have a game console, you could even consider investing in the Just Dance series to step up your moves)

Dec 5:

Be friendly with people that you meet. While your natural tendency is probably to used closed body language—head down, arms folded in front of you, turned away, standing at a distance—try doing the opposite today.

Stand straight, keep your head level and eyes straight ahead, relax your arms at your sides, turn toward people, stand close, and most importantly, smile.

Dec 6:

Talk to someone about their problems. Do you know someone who has been struggling with something recently? Perhaps you’ve noticed a friend or relative posting about an issue on social media or talking with someone else about a problem they need solved.

Offer a listening ear to that person and expect nothing in return. This will give you a chance to practice your active listening skills, and may even help the other person decide on a course of action.

Dec 7:

Give blood. Donating blood is a simple charitable act that most people can do. In the United States you can do this through the Red Cross Blood Bank.

There are certain eligibility requirements, so it’s probably best to call ahead and ask if you meet the criteria. Or, you can visit the website and read up on the process. Either way you’ll be working on your social anxiety in three ways:

1) Helping others has been shown to be related to lower social anxiety;

2) Using the phone is good practice if you’ve got phone phobia; and

3) Talking to  health personnel is a good chance to expose yourself to a new situation.

Dec 8:

Compliment someone indirectly. An indirect compliment can have just as much of a positive impact as a direct one. Choose between in-person, telephone, or electronic delivery, and then praise someone you know—without contacting them directly.

For example, you might tell a friend about how your sister has great style, email your mother about how your father’s help around the house has been a blessing, or post on Facebook about the delicious desserts a coworker brought in to work.

Word will eventually get around, and an indirect compliment can sometimes carry more weight. In the meantime, you’ve also practiced an important social skill.

Dec 9:

Leave something inspirational in public for others to find. Examples might include an envelope with a $5 bill and the note “Hope this makes your day a little brighter!” or a book (something along the lines of “The Secret”) with a note that whoever finds this book is about to be put on a path to success. Write a positive message on a rock and leave it somewhere to be found.

Here you challenge your social anxiety by getting out in public and risking possible embarrassment if someone wonders what you are doing. It’s okay to feel anxious while you do this—just keep going.

Dec 10:

Dedicate a half hour out of your day to mindfulness of your surroundings. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of the Christmas season. Perhaps you’ve rushed through a shopping mall or kept your head down as you go about your day, not paying attention to those around you. Be on the lookout for those struggling. Perhaps you can do something as simple as hold a door for a new mom. Bonus points for practicing mindfulness (which helps to conquer social anxiety) and helping others.

Dec 11:

Be kind to yourself and take the time to move your body today. Exercise is known to help improve mood and it’s likely to also help your social anxiety. Yoga, running, and a group exercise class are good options to challenge your anxiety while also getting oxygen pumping to your brain.

Dec 12:

Today, practice patience. This could mean patience with yourself, patience with others, patience with the world—all of which are going to help put your problems with social anxiety in perspective. Perhaps you’ve been impatient with finding work, making friends, or waiting on the world to change (as John Mayer says). Change takes time and that’s okay.

Dec 13:

Anonymously send a postcard of positivity. The website “Postcards for Positivity” allows you to register your name to be on a list of people who wish to receive an anonymous postcard with a positive message.

Add your name to the list, and you could soon find an inspirational greeting in your mailbox. Or, ask them to give you the name and address of someone from the list, and you can send your own greeting of positivity.

Dec 14:

Find a long-lost relative. Sign up for a program like Ancestry DNA or 23 and Me and discover your heritage. These programs also allow you to connect with far-flung relatives—people that you would otherwise never have the chance to meet. Challenge your social anxiety by actually reaching out to someone and learning what you share in common.

Dec 15:

Offer an item you no longer need for free on Kijiji or Craigslist. Conquer your social anxiety through challenges like emailing potential recipients, taking phone calls and meeting in person. Just remember to stay safe and meet in a public setting. This can be especially great to do with kids toys right before the holiday season!

Dec 16:

Write a letter of appreciation to groups that are helping the community or the environment, such as the “Just a Bunch of Friends” collective mentioned earlier. Your positive words may inspire them to continue doing good, and the act of reaching out will increase your confidence in giving compliments.

Dec 17:

Ask how a person is doing. This seems quite simple on the surface, but how often have you taken the time to ask this question and actually listen for the answer? Match it with direct eye contact and a genuine smile, and you’ve practiced open body language and active listening all in one shot.

Dec 18:

Buy yourself flowers.

Or chocolate.

Or a new tie.

Or a favorite magazine.

Choose a small indulgence you might not normally allow yourself, and realize that you deserve to feel good and rewarded once in a while. Consider this your reward for all the hard work you have been doing this month.

Dec 19:

Go to a tourist location and offer to take photos with other people’s cameras. What! I can’t do that, you think. That’s exactly the point! You can do it, if it weren’t for your social anxiety holding you back.

Wouldn’t you at least like to try. If you happen to live close to a natural wonder of the world (such as Niagara Falls) go hang out for an hour and see who you can help. Otherwise, keep this one tucked away in your mind for when the opportunity presents itself.

Okay—we are in the home stretch now, so we’re going to keep the last 6 days short and sweet.

Dec 20:

Drop off a toy, game, or magazines to a hospital waiting room.

Dec 21:

Drop off a grocery store gift card to a homeless shelter.

Dec 22:

Take teddy bears to the Children’s Aid Society.

Dec 23:

Tape change to a payphone with a note gifting it to the next person who needs it.

Dec 24:

Give a lottery ticket to a stranger.

Dec 25:

Call a relative who may be alone just to say hi.