Social Anxiety – Flight, Fight and Freeze (with some baseball and raccoons thrown in for good measure)

Katie Park
Katie Park
I know I have not been posting as much as I should but I’m in a fantasy baseball league. The play-offs and final, along with a few other life events, took up my time over the last three weeks. You’ll be happy to know ….or not, depending on who you are….that I won the Championship.

My 10 dollar trophy is on its way to my home.

Yes. That 10 bucks included shipping.

My crisis right now involves making a decision to hold onto Andrew Cashner for next year.  He was boss last week and racked up close to 80 points-sorely needed because I had to beat the league ninja without Jered Weaver who was scratched from his start after the rosters were submitted.

Onto social anxiety…

Social anxiety manifests itself across three reactions that are biologically hardwired. All of us are programmed, on some level, to fight, flight or freeze in the face of danger. This is important to know if you have social anxiety because the problem isn’t so much the reaction – it’s more the perception.  The reaction itself is quite natural in the face of real immediate danger – your body is doing what it’s designed to do.  How you valuate the danger associated with social situations and how you’ve reinforced your body’s response to this danger is the real issue.

When an individual with social anxiety is about to enter or finds themselves in a social situation, there are a bunch of alarms that go off that create a chain reaction.  The alarms are usually cognitive distortions that over-value the probability that something bad will happen and/or maximize the impact of a mistake or negative event that occurs in a social situation.

Examples include a person believing that they will come across as stupid and become the “talk of the party” before they even enter the room or someone who feels they became the “talk of the party” as a result of not being able to contribute to a discussion about the relationship between physics and macramé.

I thought macramé was some sort of pasta dish until about three weeks ago.  Seriously – you think you have problems?

With folks who have experienced significant trauma or have had bad experiences in social settings, sensory input can be the catalyst to the negative thinking – if it smells like, looks like, feels like it did then, we react as if it is happening now.

Being that the social situation is framed as a threat – a danger- the body responds the way it would respond to any danger; by biologically preparing a person to address the threat.  This biological response includes  increased sweating, heart rate, blood flow redistribution, muscle tension and changes in breathing; to name a few.  These changes are designed to make you battle ready regardless of whether you choose to run, fight or play dead.

So, although there are no genetically altered super raccoons looking to make you their next meal, your body is acting like there are.  Because of the disconnect between how your body is reacting to the threat and your understanding of the threat, these changes can be confusing and frightening. The confusion around the biological response actually works to maintain or increase the biological response.

As a result of the discomfort, the individual with social anxiety responds to the biology in ways that are consistent with the biology.  One typical response is avoidance of social situations altogether which makes the problem worse because, over time, the only frame of reference becomes what a person believes will happen instead of an actual event.

This is what we professionals refer to as a “pain-in-the-ass” cycle.

Unfortunately, one of the few ways to improve social anxiety involves exposing yourself to social situations over and over…..and over again; incorporating coping skills, a few tools and reasonable narratives. Last month I wrote a quick post on how folks can go about doing this, so if you’re interested in learning more you may want to check it out (link below). If the social anxiety is the result of a historical event, therapy can help you address that content through some form of exposure therapy.

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Social Anxiety beat down

photo_1256_20060310 Many folks who struggle with social anxiety are typically focused on how they come across and one or more undesirable outcome they feel will likely happen.   A trigger many folks with social anxiety identify in treatment is their performance in one to one discussions and the inability to initiate, carry or tolerate breaks in a conversation.  If you struggle with social anxiety, here are a few tips that may help you.

Practice mindfulness-

Mindfulness is about observation and involves pushing your attention away from the thinking that’s driving the anxiety to your senses. Focus less on what you think and focus more on what you see, hear, smell, taste and touch.  While observing move your thinking to a factual description of what you’re receiving from your senses; describe only what you are sensing. Avoid coming to an opinion or conclusion on meaning- focus more on what is actually happening.  Negative thoughts may come into the narrative but fill the real estate in your head with what is outside of you so there is less real estate available to fight what’s going on inside you. Don’t engage the negative thinking, treat it like confetti-holding onto it or engaging it is fruitless, just let it pass by your awareness and away from your attention.

Try this first at home. If you have pets, they provide an excellent opportunity to practice mindful engagement safely.  If you don’t have any pets please take one of mine. Seriously. Ill pay you.   There is a really great article on mindfulness at the end of this post.

Be curious-

A great way to begin and maintain a conversation is to come from a place of curiosity.  In being mindful you’ll be able to hear more of what the other person is saying.  Ask questions about what they are presenting to you, even if you don’t necessarily care about the subject.  People aren’t focused on you, they (much like you) care more about how they come across. Asking questions demonstrates interest and removes the burden of “having to come up with something”.  It sort of goes like:

A: “When did you start working here?”

B: “Three weeks ago, I left my job as a basket weaver.  Tarot card reading is where the money is at.”

A: “Basket weaving? That sound pretty cool did you actually weave the baskets?”

B “No dude it’s all made by machines.  The man is basically keeping us down. We’re all going to be replaced by robots. I was just a cog in the corporate machine. I fed the machine, the machine made the basket and the man made his money ”

A: “That’s a pretty interesting theory, do you think its possible for every profession to be replaced by robots?”

B: “Are you kidding man?  Just the other day I read this blog on Above Top Secret and it’s like you don’t even know if the person making your sandwich is a robot or a real person…it’s like so sophisticated now. Do you want to eat a robot made sandwich? Think about it dude……seriously.”

A:  “So what interested in you in Tarot Card reading?”

Get the point?  The subject of the discussion is readily available; it’s the person you are talking to.

When the questions are asked of you and the person runs out come back with a question about them.  Questions are a safe way to demonstrate social competence without taking large risks.

Have a script-

Sort of.  Write down a list of things you’re interested in and pick out those that tend to have wide audience appeal.  For example movies, books, music, Little Debbie snack cakes…the ones with the strawberry jelly and white creme in the middle. Also include areas you may not necessarily be interested in but play a part in everyone’s life -family, friends, career, etc. Use this list as your go-to in trying to initiate and maintain a discussion.  If you’re uncomfortable in disclosing your interests in these areas then ask about theirs.  What do they listen to, what do they read and what books have they read lately, favorite movies etc.

Have an escape plan-

Give yourself three or four reasonable excuses to leave the situation but make sure that they don’t let you off the hook for good.  Going to the bathroom or making a call are socially acceptable ways to exit a situation but hold you accountable to return.  Every time you come back try to stay a little bit longer than the time before.  Make your breaks productive; play a game, engage in breathing – do something that allows you a mini-escape from the distress and calms you down.

Desensitization always works-the more you confront and tolerate what makes you uncomfortable the less uncomfortable it becomes. Like hot sauce.  Do you remember how much hot sauce you were able to take the first time you tried it?  I’m not talking about that Goya nonsense. I’m talking about the real hard core stuff.

Hold to your virtue-

We’re all afraid of something so avoid judging your fear, instead give yourself credit for confronting the fear and hold yourself accountable to the virtue at play- courage.  Create a visual in your head of what it would look like to act from courage and act like that.  Make it less about performing socially and more about beating the crap out of your anxiety.  Anxiety is the guy that wants you to be alone, he’s controlling who you see, who you spend time with, what you are allowed to do, what you are allowed to say…hell I even think he said something inappropriate about your mom the other day. Are you going to let that jerk get away with that?

If the evidence doesn’t exist then “it” doesn’t exist-

Really think about what you’re thinking about.  If it feels certain and critical then demand evidence.  If the evidence is lacking create a more reasonable belief and iterate the evidence to support the belief in your thinking. If the evidence supports that how you’re coming across is socially awkward like-

“I’m picking my nose and everyone is staring at me”

then stop picking your nose and move on.