Understanding Social Anxiety

April 10, 2017

Anxiety in various forms is a defense against other – usually uncomfortable – feelings. We jump out of important feelings that need our attention into another experience that is often just as unpleasant. Social anxiety is no different. Feeling, understanding, processing, and owning our underlying feelings is the key to relief. The added step for healing communication and social anxiety specifically is practicing bringing those feelings into relationship with others, realizing that our full authentic self can be seen and accepted.

Let’s start with understanding anxiety as a defense

Many of the clients I have seen over the past ten years who come in with any form of anxiety, including panic disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, and OCD, have very clearly shut down parts of their real selves in order to perform, fit in, hide, or avoid.  Whether they are highly successful and pleasing to others, or frozen with fear and self-doubt, they have chosen not to feel important aspects of their lives, leaving them anxious because the body knows something is not right. We have a natural way to move through feelings and when that is blocked and we repress who we really are or what we really feel, we inevitably face the consequences—whether through physical symptoms, depression or anxiety.

So how do we break down these unhealthy defenses?

For the many clients facing this experience, we start with creating enough safety and care for those feelings to come out. You can do this in therapy or with a loving friend or family member if you don’t know how to hold yourself with this kind of care.  The real self is dying to come out.  When you care and surrender to whatever pain or truth your heart is wanting to feel and express, the anxiety goes away on its own.  Whether you need to grieve past losses that you moved past too quickly, or listen to your knowing inside that you need to switch jobs or relationships, listening inside and giving your body permission to bring forth what is inside without judgment is the fastest way through anxiety.

The underlying mechanism of social anxiety

Sometimes underlying social anxiety specifically is a lack of self-worth or fear of being seen or known by others and therefore discovered as inadequate or rejected.  If you don’t like yourself (which is based on your childhood and not your fault at all) then you might have to do a bit more than feel and express to heal your anxiety.  To find freedom from your anxiety, you must care about, forgive and accept yourself.  We often need help with this.  For those with social or communication anxiety it can be terrifying to open up to others or to make a bold move like joining group therapy, but this step serves two important purposes in your healing.

Two ways to overcome social anxiety

First, social anxiety is much like a phobia and the fastest way through it is to face our fears and survive. We don’t want the experience to be so anxiety-producing that it reinforces a negative experience, but with small steps we must approach what scares us in order to find out we are safe (and, in the case of social anxiety, liked or accepted).  We practice and practice being open and connecting in order to teach our bodies that it can go well.  If we avoid what scares us, social anxiety can easily become agoraphobia and people’s worlds can become smaller and smaller with less places to feel safe.

Second, through experience being vulnerable with others we own our voice and our authentic self, which heals the roots of anxiety described earlier (repressing, denying, pretending vs. authenticity).  In that experience we have the added opportunity to learn to love ourselves by seeing other people’s caring reactions toward us.  Most people respond well to vulnerability and openness.  Make sure to find people who fit this category, but they are not hard to find.  The care they show you will help with the deeper question inside about whether you are worthy and valuable. Over time connection and care will change your negative perspective on yourself, give you hope, and heal your communication or social anxiety.