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.
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