You are in a restaurant having dinner with a friend for the first time in ages. You’re having a lovely meal and a catch up. And then, the waiter sits a noisy family at the table next to yours.
Before you know it, you start to become very aware of how busy the place is, your heart starts to race and you might even find it hard to breathe. All you can think of is how busy the restaurant is, how this family is stupidly noisy. Your friend is talking to you but you don’t really register what she is saying anymore. You feel trapped and you can’t find a way out.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is defined as “a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations”. It comes in a whole variety of levels from finding it hard to crowded place to not liking to be in any social situations.
I have noticed that, amongst my friends and family, one of the side effects of the lockdown is a low to medium level of social anxiety.
Whereas before people had no issues to be out and about – quite the opposite in certain cases, they loved it – now, they are hesitant to ventured outside and, when out, they can feel overwhelmed, especially in busy situations.
As always with anxiety, if you are one of the sufferers, you are faced with two solutions:
- You adapt your life to accommodate the anxiety and stay within your new comfort zone
- You try and carry on as normal and look for ways of dealing with your anxiety
Both are valid.
What kind you do about it?
I think that we all adapt our life to a point to stay in our comfort zone. So, if adapting your life to stay comfortable is your preferred option, l completely understand.
Sometimes though, either you don’t want to adapt your life or, even though you would love to, you can’t.
If you are in that situation, I have a few suggestions of things that you could do when you are out and about to keep the anxiety at bay (or at least at a manageable level).
In for 3, out for 5
Your breath is an incredibly powerful tool to influence the way you feel.
When the anxiety sets in, you are likely to breathe faster and in a shallower way that will increase your anxiety level even more.
Taking your awareness to your breath will immediately have a calming effect. But, by extending your outbreath – aiming at making it about twice as long as the inbreath – you will be triggering the relaxation response in your body.
The technique is very simple.
Breathe in as you count to 3. Breathe out as you count to 5. And repeat that for as long as you need.
If you are in a place where you can close your eyes to take you away from the surrounding busy-ness, go for it. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breath.
Shift your awareness
When the anxiety comes up, the likelihood is that your mind is going on a loop around some kind of nightmare scenario, or is focusing on what is making you feel uncomfortable.
What you can do in this situation is shift your awareness to something mundane and very concrete. It can be anything. If you are in a restaurant, focus on a fork, a glass, the placemat… In a shop, focus on a particular item or the pattern on the floor.
From there, start to list in your mind everything you can notice about this thing: the colour, the way the light reflects on it, the weight, where it fits in with the rest of the things around it, where it can possibly come from, where it has been made, how useful or not it is, how much you like it or not…
You get the idea. Rather than giving your mind the space to drive at high speed down anxiety highway, take a detour and start meandering along slow, quiet side roads, looking at the scenery around you.
I have tried this technique many, many times and it does really work. There is something very grounding in focusing your mind to one single practical item to short-circuit the anxiety.
I know, when you feel anxiety raising its ugly head, the last thing you want to feel is grateful about anything.
And that is what makes gratitude so powerful.
Your anxiety is trying to convince you that you are in a dangerous situation and that you need to be ready to fight or run for your life.
By starting to express gratitude, you stop the anxiety in its tracks.
So, be grateful for everything you can think of: the sun (or rain depending on the weather), the roof over your head, the food you are eating, the people you are around, the fact that you can be out and about, your pets, your clothes,….
Say thank you for everything that is good in your life, and that will help to quieten the voice of the anxiety in your head, as you will quickly find yourself with a warm, fuzzy feeling at all the things that you have listed.
Next time you find yourself in a social situation that is triggering your anxiety, try one of these techniques.
For more techniques, have a look at my Youtube video on https://youtu.be/eEYqEqE1Dgg