Do you feel anxious in social situations? If so don’t allow your feelings of anxiety to take control of your life. You take control of your anxiety. To help understand where feelings of anxiety stem from and what you can do to reduce your feelings of anxiety in social situations, I have interviewed licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Marty Cooper.
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
“I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in San Francisco (I can be reached through mlcooper.com). Although I work with a range of clients and issues, my main focus is the treatment of chronic anxiety and depression, using a mindfulness-based approach that emphasizes the development of a clear understanding of how these moods work so that one can expand the range and depth of choice available in dealing with them.”
What does anxiety in social situations stem from?
“In a general sense (the etiology of anxiety, like depression, is a big and often puzzling topic), anxiety in social situations arises from the idea that we are in danger, and that danger is seen and felt as coming from some aspect of the group or group situation. Whether one is aware of the beliefs and thoughts or not, the anxiety is about how the social situation is experienced, not simply what it is. If the latter were true, that the situation was simply by nature anxiety provoking, then everyone in that situation would be anxious. As common as is the fear of public speaking, for instance, some people just thrive on it.”
“In other words, social anxiety is rooted in the social experience'”the cues for anxiety are social, and without those social cues, the anxiety does not arise.”
What type of impact can social anxiety have on a person’s overall life?
The impact of social anxiety can be mild to profound, from slight butterflies in the stomach to a paralyzing inability to be in groups. Generally, this type of anxiety is going to arise out of experiences in the person’s past in which groups or particular social situations were associated with being hurt, or humiliated, or damaging in small or big ways. But that being said, the impact of a person’s character structure, level of support in their lives (family, religious/spiritual beliefs about meaning, career, partnership, etc.), and bio- and neuro-chemistry all will have a modifying effect on the trauma of those early experiences. As with so many psychological issues, the answer often is quite legitimately, “It depends — “”
How can someone reduce anxiety in social situations?
The answer to this is both simple to state, and (generally) difficult to enact. So the answer first: Observe the experience of anxiety objectively up until the edge of overwhelm, and at that point, engage in self-soothing. Anxiety is troublesome and impactful because we can’t “get our hands around it.” We don’t understand it’s origins, or when exactly it arises, and therefore don’t know how to impact it. By practicing observation of anxiety'”how does it feel emotionally? How does the body register anxiety? What does it do to our various senses? How does it change my thought patterns?'”the nebulous quality of the anxiety diminishes, and the clarity increases. Then one realizes, “Oh, this is anxiety!” rather than, “Oh, no, this is reality!””
“At that point, with that insight, then you can make choices to actually effect the level of anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), for instance, offers a slew of ways to do this, from talking back to the anxiety with rational thoughts (“All the other times I spoke in public I was fine and no one mocked me”), to tracking on a chart the ebbs and flows of social anxiety in order to discover its patterns, etc. You can practice an insight approach (What does this anxiety associate to in my past? What memories or images arise when I reflect on the experience of social anxiety?), or a body based approach (perhaps, in identifying this anxiety, you know that a good run through the park beforehand alleviates it, or that paying attention to diet is important, or taking a medication helps).”
“The point here is that there is not a “pill” to take regarding social anxiety, but rather that the process of clarifying what it is allows you to experiment with what works and what doesn’t to control or diminish (or eventually uproot) it. Because anxiety, social or otherwise, is inherently a contraction of thought/feeling/body based in fear, it is important to lessen it by practicing the opposite: openness of inquiry and curiosity into its nature, and an open-handedness in experimenting with different solutions.”
What last advice would you like to leave for someone who has anxiety in social situations?
“Two things: first, to underline the last paragraph, in my experience you have to turn the anxiety into something you can observe, and you have to experiment with different solutions. Don’t think you’re going to solve it from the same fearful place from which it arises.”
“Second thing: Whether friends, family, medications, teachers or therapists, take any support you can find. I went to a meditation teacher once, while on retreat, and asked, “What supports are ok for me to take in.” He paused for a minute, then simply said, “All of them.” If something is truly a support, is something that props you up so that you can become stronger, then take it in. To not do so is often a foolish heroism.”
Thank you Marty for doing the interview on how to reduce anxiety in social situations. For more information on Marty Cooper you can check out his website on http://www.mlcooper.com/.
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