Dave, a twenty-something professional that I’ve worked with for some time now, lives with social anxiety but is learning to overcome it, one day at a time.
From the outside he appears calm; to his work colleagues reasonably composed and confident. But to his closest friends and partner, Dave’s anxiety has been, on occasion, a disruption.
Take for example his partner changing plans for a day trip at the last minute because he was anxious of being alone until evening. Or, his friends being unable to enjoy an evening out, as a result of him having a panic attack at the thought of being around a crowd.
But Dave’s story isn’t uncommon. Though anxiety disorders are twice as likely to affect women than men, along with depression, they’re the most common type of mental ill health in the UK, with approximately 8 million diagnosed in 2013.
And despite what some might think, social anxiety is more than shyness or feelings of awkwardness in social settings. It’s a debilitating feeling of fear that disrupts normal day to day activities like work, college, or school and which impacts relationships and self-confidence.
Imagine for a moment a constant feeling of being judged, watched or scrutinised by others. This is just one example of what living with social anxiety can be like for so many. If you lived with social anxiety you might find that you:
- are fearful of appearing strange or weird
- avoid social activities like parties, meetings or group conversations
- are concerned about doing something ’embarrassing’ in front of others
- experience physical symptoms like nausea
- are concerned about appearing incompetent or stupid
These are some of the common symptoms of social anxiety that you can experience before, during or after events. And as you’ll see, they each have the potential to stop someone from enjoying life.
Dave, like many others living with mental ill health, is aware of the impact his anxiety has had on his life and wants to get better at managing it. And this has been the first step towards his progress.
As a counsellor, it’s been remarkable to observe and be a part of his journey. Working with him, I’ve felt a growing admiration of his willingness to better himself, his commitment to change and his desire to win.
Each week he’s honest about the moments he’s ‘failed’ and succumbed to his anxious and (as he’s come to recognise) irrational thoughts. At the same time, he’s learning the importance of noticing what he’s doing well and praising himself accordingly.
But here’s the thing, the progress Dave has made is the result of being honest about his unhelpful coping strategies and making a commitment to change them. He also recognises that neither avoidance or denial will address the issues or make them disappear.
So he’s decided to develop a different coping strategy; a better and more effective one. He’s decided to set himself up to win.
And by win, I mean, giving himself the opportunity to be able to say, “I did it!”. This is important because the more he’s able to say those words of accomplishment, the more he’ll challenge any limiting beliefs about his abilities.
With regular and consistent wins, which in effect provide him with evidence of his abilities, he’ll redefine his belief system. This will in turn alter his thought patterns and resulting behaviour. You get the idea.
Dealing with your anxiety
And you can do the same. If struggling with anxiety, you too can create small and achievable wins to look back on as successes. You too can take steps to build a body of evidence showing you’re more capable and resilient than you currently believe.
It starts with creating wins that’ll each play a part in validating your worth and increasing your confidence. In doing so, you can start to take back control from your anxiety and live a more fulfilled life.
So, what could you do to overcome your anxiety?
First, remember that fear is just an emotion, and that unlike danger, it can’t harm you. Fear can only stop you if you let him, and that’s a choice you make.
From there I’d suggest making a list of small challenges you could set yourself over the next 30 days or so; small and achievable goals that’ll push you slightly outside of your comfort zone.
For example, if you’re normally anxious about using lifts, use a lift to travel just one floor instead of taking the stairs. You can then increase the number of floors you travel over a period of attempts.
Each time you win, celebrate, share your success with someone you trust, and let them know how you feel about it.
Repeating this cycle will help to form a new set of more positive and constructive beliefs, which will develop your confidence, resilience and willingness to challenge yourself in the future and overcome your anxieties.
Anxiety doesn’t need to rob you of the life you want. Like Dave, you’re capable of creating small wins where you can say, “I did it!”, that’ll help to create in you a new set of beliefs and an ever growing confidence to do more.
Questions to consider
Where might you need to start challenging your beliefs about yourself or circumstances? What would be the cost of not addressing them? In what ways could you set yourself up to win?