Have you ever suspected that someone you’re close to is avoiding a social situation because of anxiety? Feeling anxious in social situations is common for many of us, but for some people, it can be debilitating. Your friend or loved-one may be suffering from social anxiety. People often hide their symptoms, so if you notice that a friend is anxious, it might be a good time to help. Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for social anxiety, and knowing some basic principles can help you be supportive. Here are the basics:
Social anxiety can be the result of physiological factors, traumatic experiences, or both. With proper support, anxiety can be overcome. Don’t criticize, blame, or minimize feelings. It’s important to listen and be supportive so that your friend will be more likely to open up.
Find out what they’re thinking
Physical feelings of anxiety usually start with thoughts. The first step is to ask your friend what he or she is worried about. Get as much detailed information as possible. Remember that no matter how unlikely or inconsequential these thoughts seem, they are real for your friend. Meet them with curiosity, not judgement.
Once anxiety hits, it can be very difficult for someone to get perspective on the situation. You can “widen the lens” by asking: what’s the worst thing that could happen? What’s the best thing that could happen? What is likely to happen? Have they ever felt this way before, and survived? Looking back on this situation in five years, what will they think about it?
Be a cheerleader
When helping a social anxiety sufferer, CBT therapists often ask their patients to imagine what a good friend would say to them. Here’s your chance to be that friend! Remind them of their strengths, whether it be a winning smile or a great sense of style. Remind them of the benefits of being social: reinforcing friendships, meeting new people, making connections, and having interesting experiences.
Avoiding a social situation is what is known as “safety-seeking behavior.” Safety-seeking behaviors reduce feelings of anxiety, but they are a quick fix that actually worsens the problem. Once a certain pathway in the brain is reinforced (ie. avoid socializing = relief) it takes effort to create an alternative pathway (ie. socializing = fun). Even though avoidance is to be avoided, forcing is not the answer. If necessary, try to negotiate a compromise. It’s better to plan an exit strategy ahead of time than it is to avoid going in the first place. With any luck, once your friend is exposed to the actual
situation, it will be much better than anticipated.
Reinforce the positive
Show confidence in your friend’s ability to cope. Just because they’re worried, you shouldn’t be. In the context of the social situation, give him or her opportunities to be independent and answer questions themselves. Afterwards, offer lots of positive reinforcement for making the effort to overcome the anxiety. Get help: If your efforts are not successful, don’t take it personally. Social anxiety disorder can be crippling, but it is treatable. Recommend that your friend get help from a certified CBT therapist.
How to Get Help for Social Anxiety
The National Social Anxiety Center is a national association of regional clinics with certified cognitive therapists specializing in social anxiety and anxiety-related problems. Currently, we have regional clinics in San Francisco, District of Columbia, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York City, Chicago, Newport Beach / Orange County, Houston / Sugar Land, and St. Louis. Contact our national headquarters at (202) 656-8566 or visit our Regional Clinics contact page to find help in your local area or if your clinic is interested in applying for membership.