Overcoming social anxiety
Lockdown did not have many good things going for it. But, one of them was surely the social fig leaf it provided — for not seeing some of the people we would rather avoid, but are often forced to deal with. However, social anxiety casts its net far wider than the archetypal 'problem people' in our lives: the ex, the frenemy, the toxic work colleague. For those unfortunate enough to suffer from true social anxiety, the increased social interaction after lockdown is something to be dreaded rather than cherished.
Human beings are, by their nature, social creatures; from our very origins, dependant on the support of the tribe to keep us safe from predators and other threats, providing us with shelter and pooling our resources to find food.
And, in modern society, we have created elaborate social structures around work and socialising. So, why would it be that someone, when confronted with the group, should begin to feel anxious? Perhaps desperately anxious, to the point at which they might employ avoidant strategies to protect them from these sometimes overwhelming feelings?
In a word: judgement. As a hypnotherapist, the people who come to see me are usually fearful that their peers are looking at them in some way and not liking what they see. They feel the world is judging them — harshly judging them — and this activates their flight-or-flight mechanism.
However, at the point that this occurs they usually find themselves trapped — be it at the departmental meeting (including the Zoom meeting) or down the pub with a few mates. Their response is usually to sit in silence, feeling awkward, keeping their head down, dreading the moment when the boss says, “Chloe, what’s your take on this?”
Or at the dinner party, they may feel that no one wishes to hear what they have to say. They might offer an opinion and no one seems to engage, leaving them feeling rejected, possibly even humiliated. I worked with one client who was so stressed at the thought of getting up and walking out of their university lecture in order to use the toilet that they sat there in huge discomfort until it was over.
Though perceived judgement of others is often the underlying cause of social anxiety, the roots can often go much deeper. Sometimes this can be a single traumatising event but it is usually a more gradual process: an over-critical parent or a childhood that was spent living in the shadow of a favoured sibling, perhaps with labels being attached like “You are not clever, pretty, good at sports”.
With the weight of these labels attached, is it any wonder some people finding themselves drowning in social situations?
Then, of course, there are those suffering from social anxiety who face the ultimate horror: public speaking. Increasingly we are required to present our ideas in public, be it a client presentation or creative pitch, or at the seminar. Those with social anxiety often resent being dragged into the spotlight in this way and suffer symptoms of anxiety for many days in advance of the event. This can manifest itself in symptoms such as sleepless nights, panic attacks and anxious over-preparation.
There is also the challenge faced by those with social anxiety who have chosen to step into the spotlight as their vocation. Strange as it may seem, there are many people in the acting profession, TV presenters, singers and dancers who see this part of their work as a dragon they must slay on a daily basis. I know this as they are surprisingly regular visitors to my therapy practice.
When I visit the cinema, the theatre or attend a concert now I am aware that the confident people up on stage are, well…acting. It’s a performance, an adopted persona that may sometimes hide another, less secure aspect of their personality.
We should be careful not to mistake social anxiety with misanthropy. Sometimes those with social anxiety may be perceived as being aloof, stand-offish or even antisocial. This is not the case; it’s simply a result of the person withdrawing to protect themselves, or occasionally panicking and making a slightly snappy or ill-judged comment.
In extreme circumstances, they may become withdrawn and acrophobic, and people may (perhaps understandably) misinterpret their ignored invitations to the pub or party as a rebuttal. For the socially anxious, even going on a date can be a problem, with many preferring to decline the invitation and sit at home feeling self-loathing and regret.
How can hypnotherapy help?
As a hypno-psychotherapist, I use hypnosis to provide people with immediate relief and the tools they need to deal with the immediate challenges facing them, be it the upcoming party, meeting or audition.
I find hypnosis to be a fast and effective way of dealing with social anxiety, as it replaces the negative messages clients have often been telling themselves for many years — things like “I’m not good enough” or “no one wants to hear what I have to say” — with more positive, supportive messages. This usually leads to a very speedy increase in self-confidence and a reduction in shyness.
The therapy part, (simply talking with the client), helps us both to find out the likely roots of their problem so that they can break this pattern of behaviour and make a life-long change. During treatment clients often say they are becoming more like their “true self”.
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