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OVERCOMING SOCIAL ANXIETY: CHOOSING TO STEP OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

What is Your Comfort Zone?

We often go about our day without awareness of why we do certain things. We often create habits that ensure risk is minimized by keeping things familiar and somewhat predictable. Although this pattern might lead to less uncertainty, it also prevents people from creating new experiences and learning new things.

If people experience anxiety in social situations, staying in one’s comfort zone likely means avoidance of others in one way or another. Examples could include walking with your head down, carrying certain items at all times, sitting only with familiar people, focusing on work instead of social interactions, or using phone apps while waiting in a public place. Although all of these are common behaviors, the problem comes when they contribute to distress over time or limit us from accomplishing goals or developing new habits in line with important values.

Short-term and Long-term Results of Staying in Your Comfort Zone

Humans are wired to do things that feel good and avoid things that feel bad. Typically, the reason we continue to do the same habits over and over again is due to short-term consequences. A consequence merely means what comes next. Let’s look at an example. Chris eats lunch every day at work. Although he first tried to eat lunch at a table with coworkers, it was awkward and he didn’t know a lot about them. The next day, he took his lunch directly to his desk and ate while working (or at least looking at his computer). What happened right after this? What are the short-term consequences? Relief! It was uncomfortable sitting with new people and opening up and eating at his desk allowed him to avoid the discomfort, in the short-term at least.

The reason why people typically seek to change their behaviors is due to the negative long-term consequences that result. What happens if Chris eats lunch alone every day for a year? He probably hasn’t developed strong relationships at work and still feels uncomfortable talking to coworkers.

Choosing to Take a Step

These habits are typically automatic responses that can be changed with both awareness and deliberate choice. Here are some helpful things to consider if you want to step outside of your comfort zone:

  • Identify the specific behavior you want to change. Although you might want to change other things in the future, starting with one is sufficient. Examples related to social anxiety might include texting instead of calling, avoiding eye contact with others, not offering ideas for social outings, waiting for others to contact you, rehearsing what you are going to say or do in social situations, or not participating in class or work discussions.
  • Identify why you want to change the behavior, knowing that it is going to lead to some discomfort while you accumulate new learning and acquire a new skill. Staying connected to why you are doing something difficult can help you stay focused and tolerate the discomfort. For Chris, the why might be related to feeling connected to colleagues at work.
  • Identify how you are going to do this. Are you going to take a big step or a smaller one? Either can lead to successful changes. Maybe Chris says “hello” to two people a day or starts talking to people in the break room while getting coffee. Maybe he starts by asking one person if they want to have lunch.
  • Predict what you think will happen. What are the best and worst possible outcomes? What do you expect will happen? Write this down.
  • Be curious and willing to fully engage in the new behavior. And be willing for things to get a bit messy. It can be uncomfortable to be in the place between starting something new and acquiring mastery, but practice is the most effective way to get there.
  • Once you have engaged in the behavior, write down what you learned. What did your experience tell you? Did what you predict happen? What does that tell you?
  • Give yourself credit for the effort you put in! Change is hard for everyone.

Learning new habits can be challenging and rewarding. Some habits are more easily changed than others. It can often be helpful to recruit support if doing this independently isn’t resulting in the changes you desire. See below on how to contact The National Social Anxiety Center for support.

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. We have compassionate therapists who can help you to reduce social anxiety. 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, St. Louis, Phoenix, South Florida, Silicon Valley / Sacramento Valley, Dallas, and Des Moines. Contact our national headquarters at (202) 656-8566 or visit our Regional Clinics contact page to find help in your local area.