What keeps you from feeling relaxed?
There are a couple of mechanisms in your mind and behavior that make it extra hard to overcome your anxiety. They are mostly the result of your anxiety — so pretty hard to sidestep. But recognizing these mechanisms for what they are, helps in dealing with them. They are:
- Negative thoughts
- Safety Behavior
- Increased Self-Focus
- Digital Attention Traps
1.1 Negative thoughts
One of the causes of social anxiety is your negative bias. This bias results in a string of negative thoughts. Mental words and pictures that pop up, before, during and after a socializing. Your inner voice will say things like:
- “They are not going to like you”
- “Oh my god, they are thinking I’m weird”
- “She thinks you’re unattractive”
- “They probably hated me being there.”
Not really confidence boosters. They are part of a negative feedback loop. Since this is your narrative, it is hard to feel there could be a different way to your problems. These automatic thoughts keep you from connecting to people and expressing yourself. But it is possible to change your narrative, we will look at that later.
In the end, you have to try to (re)learn socializing. But the active avoidance of social situations prevents you from getting any experience. Unfortunately, it is still too scary. Instead, you find plenty of reasons to not face your fears.
Your mind rationalizes, fueled by strong emotions, ways to excuse yourself. So you don’t go to that party: “because you don’t like parties anyway”. You skip class “because it is not that important” and don’t go to the store “because who needs food anyway”.
Your anxiety forces your mind to find excuses.
1.3 Safety behavior
As by happenstance you do find yourself among people, you play it safe. You blend into the background. Or you hang back and check your phone to look busy. This way you don’t really take part in the social dynamic. If you do happen to say something, it’s no more than some mumbling. Or you only hang around people you do know.
The worst part is, these behaviors actually fulfill your fear of being judged by the group. Since you don’t try to really interact, you make the problem worse. All these “safety” behaviors make others hesitant to even approach you, because you are distant and closed off.
1.4 Increased self-focus
In tense situations, you are prone to focus on yourself. You know your fear responses in detail. You hope you’re not showing any. But because you focus on what happens to yourself mentally and physically. The effect and experience become worse. Sweating, blushing, stuttering — your self-focus actually induce it, making the effect worse!
“I’m sweating so much, someone will notice…!”
The worst part is — your nervousness isn't really that noticeable. You really overestimate how visible the initial effects of your anxiety are.
Because you are absorbed in the experience and negative thoughts of how 'bad' things are going — you can't focus on the people in front of you. Preventing any genuine connection.
1.5 Digital attention traps
The world, or rather your pocket, is filled with digital distractions vying for your attention. When you feel bored or lonely, you resort to consolation from the digital realm. Being distracted takes away the urge and motivation to do something about your loneliness.
It might make you feel better to be busy for a few seconds. Looking up some memes or checking your mail for the thousandth time. But you just put a barrier between you and others. Preventing anyone from thinking you are open to conversation.
You recognize these mechanisms? Maybe you have some behavior to add to the list? These extra barriers that block you from overcoming anxiety can be overcome. You can learn to always have something interesting to say.
In the next installments of this series, we will look into how to overcome these barriers. We'll look into overcoming your negative thoughts, how to stop focusing on yourself, and preventing the worst effects of digital distractions.
[This is part of a blog series on social anxiety. Where we delve into what causes your anxiety, what prevents you from solving it, challenging negative thoughts, embracing positive mindsets, letting go of self-focus and how to overcome your anxiety by exposing yourself step by step.]