Having social anxiety can sometimes stop you in your tracks. It’s hard to make contacts or get ahead with the anxiousness always looming overhead.
I was and always have been a very anxious person, even when I was a little girl. Going to bed at night ended in hysterical tears because I couldn’t deal with the fact that I had to go to school the next day. It wasn’t your average “Oh, she just doesn’t like school,” sort of dread. It was more like “I’m so terrified that my heart feels like it’s going to beat right out of my chest.” As time wore on and I got older, the anxiety only seemed to escalate with puberty and hormones. High school was a straight up nightmare for me and it was around this time that I started to get serious with counseling. Author, Ph.D., and professor of psychiatry, Reid Wilson, has a lot to say on the topic of social anxiety.
“When you start backing away from events that are important for your career, when your anticipatory dread starts interfering with your productivity, when you spend more time worrying about your performance than you do preparing, then it may be time to see a mental health professional,” he said.
USA Today sat down with him and asked a lot of questions many people have probably been waiting to hear an answer about: where do you begin to fix this anxious way of life?
Q: What is the cost of skipping work events? Does it reinforce anxiety?
I can tell you that I’ve missed nearly 100% of every function outside of work that didn’t require attendance. If I didn’t absolutely have to be there, you could find me in bed with a book instead.
“If your goal is to avoid feeling anxious, awkward, insecure and embarrassed, then avoidance is your best strategy, and it is the biggest crutch that people use when they’re socially anxious,” he said.
Turns out, though, this does nothing to help, but only magnifies the situation. People will notice you never show up to events. They may bring it up in conversation. Also, as Dr. Wilson says, it will only make you avoid more and more functions because you’ll be training yourself to think you really can’t do it. We already know that it pays to be nice at work. Try forcing yourself out of your bubble and go to at least one to start!
Q: How can people with social anxiety identify their issues and work through them?
What’s surprising is that many people have anxiety and even go through panic attacks, but they have no idea what those things actually are. I was lucky enough (or perhaps unlucky enough) to come from a long line of people in my family who deal with this type of anxiety, so I started getting help early. Most people, though, are afraid to admit there might be something wrong with them, so they avoid telling someone or lie to themselves. Take time to do some self-reflection and really recognize what is causing your fear.
“The position you need to move to is I can tolerate that potential criticism.”
Q: What strategies can people use when they are anxious about navigating a social event at work?
Dr. Wilson has a great way to defeat your social event demons – have a game plan. Plan for the things that make you uncomfortable to and think about your responses ahead of time. Part of anxiety is feeling like you’re backed in a corner, but you can overcome that aspect with formulating your answers. Also, you have to learn to accept that you need to desensitize yourself at some point. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
“Decide that you will tolerate whatever anxiety and distress that you encounter,” Wilson said. “If you’re going to get stronger, you have to learn to perform with distress, not get rid of your distress.”