Social anxiety: The thoughts of a socially anxious mind
Dr Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, has compared the experience of social anxiety disorder to walking a tightrope. You feel vulnerable that something serious and awful will happen if you make a wrong step. You may freeze up and become inhibited. You feel that your safety is on the line. You feel you are being judged by others.
Even before you go into a social situation, there is a lot of anxiety before it happens. You think about what might happen, and what might go wrong. Your mind comes up with a lot of “what ifs….”
You fear you will be exposed. You fear that just one little mistake, just one wrong step off the tightrope, will expose you. You fear this will reveal your weakness and inadequacies. You fear that if others know what you are really like, they will reject you. So you go to great lengths to hide your true self, to avoid criticism and rejection from others.
When you go into a social situation, you fear you are going to be exposed. So you watch out for signs of judgement by others. You are very sensitive to this. Your mind tunes into this – the danger of judgement. And when anyone feels they are in danger, whatever that danger is, they look for signs of that danger. This is an automatic survival mechanism. So if the danger is judgement, you are constantly alert for signs of this. Which means you may interpret a nod or a yawn or a frown as a judgement and hence, a criticism of you.
Then the next thing that happens, from these perceived criticisms, or potential criticisms, is a tendency to shut down. For example, you may not remember what you wanted to say, or talk quietly, or get your words mixed up, or you lose your natural expressiveness like smiles and gestures.
So avoidance becomes a way of coping. It prevents the pain and fear of social situations. Avoidance is one of the main features of social anxiety disorder. And here are some examples:
- Avoiding going out with friends
- Avoiding leisure activities
- Avoiding going to meetings
- Avoiding social functions e.g. a wedding
- Avoiding meeting neighbours
- Turning away when you see someone coming
- Avoiding eating in public places
- Avoiding using your hands in the presence of others.
If avoidance is not an option, and you want, or need, to endure a social situation, safety strategies come into play. You may develop a wide range of strategies to do this. For example:
- Looking at the floor to avoid eye contact
- Constantly practicing in your mind what you are about to say – to check you have got it right.
- Talking fast
- Or talking slowly
- Talking quietly
- Using a lot of make-up to hide blushing
- Leaving the room immediately after a meeting
- Trying to amuse people by telling jokes
- Or, never risk telling a joke
- Not expressing your opinion
- Not talking about yourself
- Not saying anything that might be challenging
- Keeping an eye on the escape route
- Or any behaviour which avoids unwanted attention
And even after the event is over, your mind can still be anxious, while it constantly turns over the thoughts and images and memories of what happened. You think, over and over again, about certain aspects of your interaction with others. And you focus on what you think you did wrong. But what you think you did wrong may not be the reality of the event. However it is real for you. Then you make assumptions about what other people think about you. And these assumptions are generally negative and critical of yourself. Which leads to thoughts like “I’m stupid” or “I’m useless” or “I’m no good” or “I’m hopeless”. And these thoughts constantly go around in your mind.
This makes you feel different from other people, in a negative way. Your confidence and self-esteem are rock bottom. You feel inferior. You come to expect people will ignore or reject you. And you interpret things that way. You live in fear, muddling through from one social event to another. Perhaps you feel relieved that you made a lucky escape the last time. But there is an undercurrent of fear, that you may be exposed the next time.
This constant struggle can get you down. It can make you feel frustrated and angry and guilty and low and depressed. Which means anxiety may not be the only emotion in social anxiety.
Social anxiety disorder is like walking a tightrope. You live in constant fear of taking the wrong step. This fear is the fear of being judged or exposed or criticised. You hide your true self. You develop ways to cope with your fear, like avoidance and safety strategies. However, this constant struggle can lead to more than anxiety alone. It can lead to frustration, anger, guilt and depression.