Monday, 23 December 2013

10 Facts and Tips to Help You Conquer Social Anxiety

     You get asked by your professor to face the class and answer a question on the material.

     You are sitting alone and a friend sitting in a group invites you to join them.

     You are about to meet your fiance's family and are desperate for a good first impression.

      If you were faced with one of the above? How would you react? How would you feel leading up to these events? 

      Everyday common situations like these are too many to mention. We are social beings that are forced to interact with others to lead a normal life. But what if the mere thought of these encounters leaves you nervous and agitated? There are some of us who cringe and get anxious every morning; wondering whether they'll have to be put on the spot again that day.

     How do we deal with this debilitating challenge? If we ignore society, we are left lonely and asocial and if we don't, there's a good chance we'll mess up and look stupid, right?

      I was one of those people. I was struggling with internalized racism, feelings of incompetence and constant strange behavior from tripping over nothing to eating like a confused animal.  When it came to interacting with people, I would avoid asking a question in class in fear of embarrassment or I would sit quietly in a group setting, in hopes that I wouldn't be provoked by a question from someone that I would awkwardly have to answer. Now I'm not going to lie and say that I don't occasionally do these things today because I do. But, the difference now is that I don't beat myself up for being different. I've learned to embrace even the most embarrassing aspects of myself. But none of it was easy. It all started with a conscious decision to challenge myself and see my personality as a constant work in progress. My biggest regret in all of this is letting my fears stop me from being myself and pursing the things I really wanted to do. If you can find me now, you'll see somewhere speaking confidently to professors and important figures. You might even see me on stage somewhere or in the street chanting in protest to whatever I was passionate about at the time. On top of that, my feelings of internalized racism have been replaced by assertive ways of speaking up against acts of discrimination and I am now working on constantly breaking other's perception of what people who are "like me" should and should not do. The decision to address this aspect of my life is the best one I've ever made. For this post, I wanted to share the helpful facts and tips that helped me conquer anxiety and I hope that  they will change your life for the better as well.

     Here are my 10 facts and tips to help you finally get over social anxiety:

1. All that sweating and panting is literally useless:

     When facing social anxiety, it first helps to acknowledge the normality of this struggle. Our anxiety is actually a normal physiological reaction to perceived threats - alternatively named our essential "fight or flight" response. But the difference is, with social anxiety, although it may feel as such, at that moment there is no real threat to our existence. However, our ancestors in the past required social interaction and belonging to a group for survival. This is why social anxiety and public speaking is the biggest fear that humans face today. Our past has become our present. When we finally acknowledge that our reaction is only a vestigial reminiscent of a past threat, it helps to put things back into perspective and to garner control of our body's reactions to stress.

2. Think about the worst that could happen: 

    Let's say you are about to perform a presentation that is important to your career. Before going in to the meeting, think of the worst possible consequence of your anxiety. Avoid laying out catastrophic events like "I'll lose my job" or "they'll shame me" etc. Think, you "might stutter" or "pronounce a word incorrectly". You may forget some content or you might blank out. But will any of these things kill you? After a nerve wracking public speech, we usually filter out the pros and we magnify the cons. It helps to have an honest friend in the audience to give you a realistic picture of how you performed. But again, you're not dead, so pat yourself on the back for that.

3. Challenge yourself to speak in front of a strange crowd:

    It's scary to imagine being in the spotlight in front of people who matter. People with social anxiety will assume everyone's opinion matters. But I'll lay it out there now and say that there will always be people out there who will question your existence and your behavior. It doesn't matter how confident and well-spoken you might be, it's just a fact of life. So let's at least start by appreciating ourselves and accepting who we are, flawed and all. Because no amount of gratification and praise from others can guarantee us true confidence. Confidence begins from within. Alright, so now that we know that we will always have critics and not everyone's opinion matters, we can test this by going to the other side of town and speaking in front of a strange crowd. It could be an artistic performance or a speech, but you've got literally nothing to lose in that situation.

4. Do an outlandish act that breaks societal norms:

   Science tells us that the most stressful situations arise from uncontrollable events. That is why when you're expected to perform under conditions beyond your control, you immediately get anxious. Well what if I was to say that you can be in control of the event that is supposed to make you nervous? What if you can enact the worst case scenario yourself? You can start small with mildly awkward or unexpected encounters with the public like high-fiving a stranger to doing the moonwalk and crossing the street. The best thing I found about being a minority member built up by stereotypes is that all it takes to break societal norms is to do anything outside that stereotype. Watch people's reactions and perhaps videotape your awesomeness so that you can watch it over again and laugh. When it comes to anxiety, it's a simple hierarchy model. So if you conquer the mildly nerve-wracking challenges, you will only progress further and gain more skills as you challenge yourself more.

5. Pay attention to your body and your thoughts: 

     If you've ever tried meditation, then this will be a simple exercise for you. In meditation, you are encouraged to pay attention to your internal energy along with your breathing. This can be practiced similarly in anxiety provoking situations by monitoring and paying close attention to the way your body acts in that moment. Take note of how warm your body feels or how hard your heart is beating. Now that you've realized what your body does, you can pay attention to those thoughts. When we're anxious, we usually speak in definite terms and label ourselves with negative beliefs like "I'm a failure" or "I cant do anything right". After you've acknowledged the symbiotic union between your mind and your body, start by harnessing control of your thoughts and countering the negative with the positive and the constructive. For example, instead of saying "I'm going to fail this exam", say "I'm finally going to finish this course" or "this is my final shot at demonstrating what I've learned." Next, you can bring your attention back to your physiological response, except now you can use progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing to pair up your confident thoughts in your mind to a relaxed bodily state.

6. Decode your thoughts and beliefs about your competence: 

    If you experience debilitating anxiety on a daily basis, then perhaps there's an underlying cause for the feelings of inferiority. It may help to try and write these thoughts down in a journal or as a song or in the form of a painting. Do whatever helps you accept yourself and anything that gives you confidence. Use an objective measure and monitor your daily performance and behavior. Confident people tend to attribute their mistakes to external events. Although this may be biased and faulty, if it saves you from the anxiety and leaves you as your best self, then it's worth a shot. It also helps to attribute your confidence to internal events rather than external ones dependent on the feedback of others. So for example, if you know you've got a good personality and sense of humor, then one bad joke isn't likely to make you feel worthless. However, it is possible to be anxious in social situations and confident in yourself at the same time. Pinpointing your beliefs when you are nervous will help you determine whether confidence is a factor.

7. Stand for something bigger than yourself:
     We've established so far that social anxiety is a result of nervousness over what others think of you in that moment. So if we were to focus on the highlight and presentation of a factor other than yourself, it then becomes much easier to lose the nerves. I found that it is helpful to take on social challenges that are attributed to a bigger cause than myself. If I am sincere in my efforts at representing this cause, then my nerves and my personality and what people think of it is irrelevant. Not being under the pressure to sell yourself to anyone and redirecting control to yourself and how good you can present the cause will greatly diminish your anxiety. Knowing that the cause is more important than you gives you a feeling of responsibility and a challenge to showcase it in the best possible light, while at the same time rendering your personal issues minor.
8. Be around those that encourage you:

    The hardest thing about choosing to start changing oneself is facing people's enduring ideas about your character and their resistance to accepting and encouraging your efforts. Not everyone is as encouraging as they should be. Some might joke when you attempt to challenge yourself while others might assume that your traits are fixed and that you shouldn't bother trying. It's "who you are"; they might say. Well, you don't have to endure their discouragement. Sometimes it helps to challenge yourself to something without consulting anyone first. Ruminating and thinking about the consequences of your efforts at change will only exasperate the anxiety further. If you need to take some time off from friends and family to become the person you need to be, then do. You may also communicate to your loved ones how much this means to you and that you would like some encouragement.

9. Introversion and shyness is not an excuse:

    If we lived in an accepting and tolerant world, then this point wouldn't be in this list. However, society is unfortunately not suited for introverted and shy folk. Most are quick to praise and look up to the "outgoing" ones while neglecting the ones that aren't. So, if it takes faking or acting like an "outgoing" person to reach your goals and aspirations, then don't let it stop you and go ahead and do so. I say it's not an excuse because shyness and introversion can impede your growth and stop you from asserting your strengths and proving yourself. You don't have to prefer to be around people in your spare time, but make the effort to evaluate how your shyness has effected your life and make a decision from there. Fake it till you make it if you have to.

10. Find ways to get comfortable when you're alone:

    Most of us feel anxious around people when we crave their approval. If we were okay on our own, we wouldn't feel nervous around anyone. But we've all got to admit that we can't become schizoidal and choose to not interact with anyone at all. So when we pressure ourselves to be in a group and we feel incomplete when we're not, we are then falling in a downward spiral of nervousness about nervousness. When we are comfortable being alone, suddenly the worst that could happen is not so bad. If you're confused about how you can go about doing that, read "Just Face it, You're Alone in this World". I'll let you in on another secret, but it's not my own:

It is narrated from Aisha, mother of the believers, that the Prophet peace and blessings of Allah upon him said: "Whoever hold on to pleasing Allah over pleasing people, Allah will make him needless of people, and whoever holds on to pleasing people over pleasing Allah, Allah will leave his case to the hands of people."

Good luck!

What are your thoughts? How do you deal with social anxiety?

Subscribe to Random Rants of a Muslima to receive entries directly into your inbox. Click the third right hand option to be added to the mail list