The more we try to control our anxiety in social situations, the more socially anxious we become

With the lessening of restrictions for social distancing due to Covid, people are enjoying more social gatherings and parties in December.  Many of my clients feel anxious about receiving more invitations for gatherings weeks around Christmas and New Year.  For my clients with social anxiety, resuming to attend social gatherings and parties is anxiety-provoking after a three-year break for their exposure.  Some of my clients think it is very important for them to present themselves as witty and bright in front of their friends and acquaintances.  They worried a lot about being negatively evaluated by others in social situations.  Due to their worries about exposing their anxiety in social gatherings and parties, they wanted to learn useful strategies to control their anxiety.  The thought that if people noticed their anxiety, they would be judged negatively and they would be abandoned by their friends and acquaintances.  However, is it really possible to control one’s anxiety if one is predisposed to experience more anxiety in social situations than others who are not predisposed?

Despite the etiology of social anxiety remains unknown, research suggested that both genetic and environment factors contributed to the predisposition of the development of social anxiety for individuals.  For instance, it is more likely for a person to be predisposed to suffer from social anxiety if his or her parents are perceived to have been socially isolated and to have encouraged excessive concerns about evaluations of others.  In fact, some people are genetically more prone to experience anxiety in social situations than others.  If this is the case, for some people, it is inevitable for them to experience different levels of anxiety when being in different social situations.  If some social situations are unavoidable, it is causing them sense of helplessness if they are unable to elimiante their anxiety.  Furthermore, some strategies to control one’s anxiety in social situations may only be temporarily effective.  For instance, the attempt to use relaxation techniques to control one’s anxiety may backfire due to its paradoxically impact of making one even more anxious.

In social situations, people with social anxiety got triggered to experience anxiety-related thoughts and feelings.  As a result, they become more internally conscious about their anxiety.  This increase in internal awareness reduced their external awareness of their external environment, such as other people’s facial expression or the vibe of the gatherings.  In fact, the more a person is trying to control one’s anxiety in social situations, the more one is shifting their attention inward instead of focusing their external environment.  This contributes to one’s difficulty to perform well in social situations. 

On the contrary, if people with social anxiety learned to cultivate nonjugdmental acceptance on ones’ anxiety-related thoughts and feelings triggered by the social situations, they will simply just notice these thougths and feelings without attempting to control or escape from them.  As a result, the impact of these anxiety-related thoughts and feelings on ones’ social performance would be minimal.  However, it is easier said than done to embrace our anxiety-related thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally in social situations.  To learn to have nonjudgmental acceptance of our experiences, we need to have regular mindfulness practice.  If we are being mindful in our internal experience, we are able to embrace whatever we are experiencing without judgment.

If we could embrace our anxiety in social situations more, we would realise that actually being a bit anxious in gatherings or parties is not that bad.  Our friends or acquaintaces might actually not realizing our anxiety.  By fully accepting our internal experiences, we can be more fully aware of our external environment and engaging in better socializing.  Let’s enjoy our Christmas and New Year gatherings and parties more!

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