Double Agent's brief guide to overcoming social anxiety and shyness
I am writing this short guide for several reasons. Firstly, as a long term sufferer of social anxiety, depression, low self esteem and confidence, I feel I can offer my viewpoint and personal experience of recovery. Secondly, because its a fairly grey area for a lot of people. It can be written off as just being quiet or shy, that you'll grow out of it etc, and I've noticed especially on these boards some of the responses lack real understanding, though they mean well. So, what I am putting forward is a practical guide to overcoming your social anxiety and shyness problems.
Social anxiety (include shyness when I say this) has a huge impact on the day to day routine of life. It can be defined as excessive anxiety and distress in social situations, generally with a fear of being judged by others or embarrassed. Physically you might get sweaty, blush, shaking and nervous ticks, nausea, speaking might be difficult, you may get palpations, become faint, your heart rate increases and your breathing rate may as well. It makes you limit your social interactions to a minimum, scared of day to day life and makes life very difficult, often leading to or accompanying depression.
My anxiety problems began at the age of 15. I had always been shy, and although that was difficult enough, I could live happily with it, it never limited my life in any way. Through secondary school I was bullied, isolated and generally picked on. I never told anybody about this, and instead turned to self harm to and cope with the problems. College was equally isolating, and although I was no longer being bullied I was carrying the memories, fear and anxiety picked up at school. The anxiety started to get serious at this point. My self esteem was at rock bottom, the self harm was becoming regular and ever worsening, and depression started to kick in. Depressions a funny thing, its one of the most painful things I've ever gone through, and yet somehow comforting. Its like a weight on your shoulders, sinking into the depths of your mind and soul. Eating had become an issue for me, i'd lost a lot of weight and had real problems with food. A week before starting university, at 19 years old I attempted suicide. I had begun drinking,, I couldn't answer the front door to anyone, or pick up the phone. My mind had become a prison, I was scared of living, and couldn't see any other way out. Its a feeling of being totally trapped. So I had a choice, end it here or spend every waking minute turning myself into a healthy, productive social superstar. It was bloody hard work, and takes huge balls but I did get there, and as a result I now have a beautiful girlfriend and a large social circle. I did this through a mixture of hard work, counselling, some cbt and lots of practice, and I will outline my advice for anyone wanting to do the same below.
In order for this to work effectively, you need to do some writing, drawings and charts. Although I'm not saying they are essential, they will make it much much easier, and more rewarding. I will split this into exercises through my guide, to make it clearer for you to follow.
Write out your goals and aims. What do you want to change, and how do you think you will feel when you get there? Really think about where you are now, it will help you to work out where you are going, and the best way to get there.
For the week ahead, write down a list of activites that you know will be difficult for you, that will bring you anxiety. Put a score next to each one, out of ten how much anxiety you feel about the event. Now, after the event, you need to write down how much anxiety you actually felt whilst there. Repeat this system for everything you do, it will help to reason that dread away, and things will hopefully come out as not being as scary as they first seemed.
How social anxiety works
Understanding this is key to understanding how to get better. Think of it like a series of cycles, they go round and round, and because of this, they maintain themselves and keep going. Some examples:
Youre worried that you're being boring, become preoccupied with yourself, makes you aware you're not talking much making you even more anxious of appearing boring.
You can't think of what to say, this makes you feel self concious, you have memories of being shy or embarrassed in a similar situation, and your mind is blank for things to say.
You enter a social situation. You dont know how to approach anybody, and have no idea what to say. You feel everyone is judging you, thinking you're dull, you dont know what to say, you go red, you might be shaking, and your heart is racing. You feel everyone is looking and noticing, and you dont know how to approach anybody. Its going round and round and you end up making up an excuse to leave the situation.
Hopefully you will recognise yourself in these brief examples, but if not, try to think of situations that you have felt like this, how you have felt and what happened next. The key to getting better in these situations is in breaking these cycles, sticking in there and working through it.
This is something that everyone does, anxious or not. It is why we feel anxious a lot of the time, and its not your fault, just the way the mind works, keeping you out of 'dangerous' situations. Here is a good example to get you started.
You're sat in a common room on your own. If someone wanted to talk to me then they would, right? I would just look weird or bother them if I spoke or approached them at all. So you sit in a corner or on your own, out of the way. What happens is that people automatically think that because you are not speaking to anyone and sitting on your own that you dont want to be bothered, that you'd rather be alone. So you end up thinking that nobody likes you, and will probably do the same thing next time.
So never ever make assumptions, none of us can predict the future, and if you have had problems in the past, the experiences your mind will be working from are going to be negative, hindering you again. Its the safety behaviour based on previous negative experiences that makes it so much worse for yourself, and this is what you need to break.
Similar to before, make a chart of events within the coming weeks. Write how you feel about it before it happens, then come back afterwards and write how you felt once its over with. Turn this into a diary of events, feelings and successes. It is so rewarding to look back and think about how far you have progressed.
Constructive points going forwards
Recognise your own cycles and thoughts, and draw them up into diagrams. Gain an understanding of the points where you feel most anxious, and how to break those cycles.
Dont be afraid to jump in at the deep end. Like most fears, it can sometimes be helpful, although terrifying, to face it full on, and come out the other side.
Work in baby steps, but keep them going. It will be difficult, but take it small chunk at a time. Breaking things down makes the challenge far more managable, but make sure you consistantly seek progression.
Begin to improvise, its not about following rules, its about expressing yourself as a person the way you feel best.
There is no right way of doing things. Success in life doesnt mean being socially skilled.
Learning social skills
Never be afraid to ask people questions, it is a good way of learning new things and showing an interest in somebody. When talking to new people, or even people you know, think to yourself, would I mind if they said this to me? It can help you find things to say. It doesnt actually matter what you say to people, you could go up to some strangers and ask the time, or ask what is the capital city of Kazakstan, either way you have started a conversation and they will respond. The imporatnt thing is that you have made the effort. Watch what other people do, after a while you will notice that some people are more comfortable than others, some are flirting, some are bored etc. Learning to read body language is not only fun, but teaches you a lot. People are fairly simple to work out. If you slip up, or feel silly, its fine. In X years time nobody will remember let alone care that you spilt your drink or fell over, its just part of being human.
Bullying teaches you that you are not acceptable as you are, but this isnt true. No one person is more susceptible to being bullied than another. Bullies tend to pick on something about you, and use that to dig away at you. It doesn't mean you are different, or weird, or wont ever be able to fit in. Unfortunately it does leave its legacy, and it can be very traumatic and difficult to get over. I dont have space to go to much into it here, but here are a few pointers. It is ok to be you. It is ok to be you. Identify that voice inside you, making you feel the way the bully did. Thinking about it can be upsetting, how can you think about it in another way that is more positive? Have you come out a stronger person able to deal with more things? Look at your self worth and esteem, what level is it at? Where do you want it to be? To bring this back, a network of supporting people is really useful, never turn down a friendly face or someone you can rely on.
He who dares wins
When recovering myself, I always looked to push the boundaries, you start to get a thrill and adrenaline off conqoring a new social situation, or going somewhere mega busy. One method I found was to draw big red circles on your cheeks and walk through a busy highstreet. I did this, and it was so so scary, you want to run back to your room and hide. But it works. People look, people walk past. Its fairly uneventful, but it does desensetise you to people giving you a look or comment, and when you are walking without red circles you feel so much more at ease. A variation is to wear clothes you would never ever wear. Start somewhere quiet, and build it up. The more you push yourself to do new and scary things the better it will become, and you will start to enjoy them as you get more comfortable. When entering into a social situation, try to do so as a big and confident elephant, rather than a weak and victim-like mouse. Take the conversation where you want it to go, really dont be afraid to express yourself. I always saw my recovery like a computer game, reaching higher and higher levels. It is important to remember that age isnt important when socialising, its only a skill to be practiced, and often older people are easier to talk to.
I have set this exercise into levels, liken the game analogy. These are all things I have done myself and found constructive and useful. Complete it and give yourself a treat.
1.Walk up your local high street with your head held high.
2.Do the same, but carrying a balloon
3.Say hello, how are you ? to 2 strangers whilst walking along or paying in a shop
4.Go somewhere fairly busy, and ask 7 people the time
5.Go to a large social event/night out, introduce yourself to 3 people
6.Get talking to someone, get there phone number and contact them to meet
7.Paint something on your face that people will notice, and walk around a busy town.
Often people will tell you to get a bit of dutch courage behind you if you are shy. This is not something I would recommend, having done it myself, it masks the real issue and stunts progression as far as I can see. I have taken citalopram, prescribed by my GP, and found this to be fairly good as part of a full assault, rather than on its own. Team it with counselling, and constant social practice and you;ve got a good mix. Counselling isnt scary, you sit down with someone and discuss what you find difficult, and they will hopefully try to help you with that, it is something I would whole heartedly recommend. If you have friends or family you can tell, that is great. Dealing with this alone is difficult at the best of times. It is also important to let your college/university or workplace know if it is negatively affecting your performance, they should be able to offer support and make reasonable adjustments for you.
This, I believe is the worst feeling i've ever experienced. If you have felt truly lonely at any time, you will know what I mean, its horrible. It will subside as soon as you start even saying hello when you pay in the shops, and once you progress further it will get better still. Try and find a purpose in your life. What are you passionate about? What are you really interested in? What would you change about the world? Having this purpose also builds personality and gives you something to talk about. Start reading, it is a good relaxing escape, and another conversation booster.
Being good socially isn't something people are born with, it is a taught behaviour, which means you can learn it too. When learning new things, firstly we have to find out information about them, be well informed. In this case, be well informed about yourself, what you like and dislike, what makes you tick, what you are interested in. The single most important thing is to practice. Go out, find some people and start talking. Everyday. And it will get easier. There is no easy way round this point, you can have all tips in the world but its only when you put them into practice that you can reap the rewards. I guess I dealt with my anxiety by learning every tiny part of it, and exploiting that knowledge to my own advantage, which effectively is what you need to do too.
Here is a scenario that you may come across, that may get you started practising your social skills.
You are in uni halls, want to go to the kitchen but its always go people in who you dont really know. You tend to avoid the kitchen and get food in your room or out. Go in there, head up high. Say to whoevers there hey guys, how you doing they will reply. Comment that you've been busy with work, or on the weather, they will relish the new face to talk to.
I will now write a little bank of topics of things you can say when you have one of those blank moments, we've all been there.
Film, music, weather, jobs, coursework, the economy, sports, politics, celebertities, clothes, upcoming events, summer, holidays, christmas, food and cooking, games, favourite pubs/clubs/cafes, travel and the travel system, family and friends, dating, books and reading, clubs, societies, any big building work on site, and then focus down on more microtopics within those relating to your personal interests, their interests, what you are doing that moment, how each other are etc.
Although it seems fairly long, this is only a snippet of advice, I could be here all night typing and still not cover each individual problem. I hope this guide has been of some use to at least somebody, feel free to ask any questions, suggest other titles you need help with etc.
Double Agent x