Social anxiety is one of the most common mental health issues; around 12% of us will suffer from it over the course of a lifetime.
According to the NHS, it means having “a long-lasting and overwhelming fear of social situations”, as well as “a persistent fear of negative evaluation by others” that often begins in teenage years. While some people grow out of it, others don’t, and it can have a debilitating effect that means sufferers limit their lives in order to avoid certain scenarios.
Fear of rejection
Stefan Hofmann, professor of psychology at Boston University, says fear of rejection lies at the root of the condition.
“It’s actually a very healthy fear,” he says. “In evolutionary terms, the most feared thing is to be excluded from others. In hunter-gatherer times, humans on their own got nowhere; excluded from peer group, they were less likely to survive. And so we have this constant desire to be appreciated by others.”
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We all share a certain level of this fear, but it spills over into social anxiety when the force of it becomes paralysing.
“If it’s distressing and gets in the way of your goals, then you become disabled by fear,” Hoffman says. “This can lead to isolation and loneliness.”
Confronting the anxiety
Along with his colleagues at the Psychotherapy and Emotion Research Laboratory, Hoffman seeks to help those suffering from social anxiety with a “powerful and positive” technique known as social cost exposure.
This approach “means you try overstretching yourself a bit and trying situations that would clearly be uncomfortable for anyone,” says Hoffman. “You make a fool of yourself to make yourself realise that nothing bad will happen.”
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Socially anxious people tend to over-dramatise the consequences of interacting with others. They imagine they will do or say something ridiculous that would be highly embarrassing, catastrophic even.
Social cost exposure brings you face-to-face with that fear to make you grasp that – even when you actively set out to do something ridiculous – the outcome is not half as terrifying as you perceive it to be.
Ready to feel uncomfortable?
The founder of this approach himself suffered from social anxiety, specifically when it came to talking to women.
So, he spent an entire day in a New York park, and forced himself to approach 100 random women who passed him by, asking each of them out on a date. Only one woman took him up on the offer. But the point was null; by facing his worst social fear head-on, he rapidly conquered it. He felt what it was like to be rejected again and again; and he realised that, actually, it wasn’t so bad.
“It’s about coming up against your worst-case scenario and forcing you to shape that,” says Hoffman. “You confront your fear, and become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“We tend to exaggerate social costs of interacting with others,” he adds. “There won’t be any arrests, or crowds ridiculing you.”
Fear versus reality
Placing your belief against what will happen in a situation where you make a bit of a fool of yourself against the reality of what *actually* happens exposes the fear for what it is: a figment of your imagination.
Very occasionally, says Hoffman, the outcome of what you do is “bad or worse than what you had anticipated: in that case, you proved to yourself that you coped. You survived. But in most scenarios, the outcome is far better than whatever it is that you expected.”
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Most people with social anxiety “naturally don’t think they have what it takes when it comes to social interactions,” he adds. “But actually, most people are just fine with the skills that they have. The vast majority of people with social anxiety have good social skills. And equally, people with bad social skills have no social anxiety at all.”
This “very brief, very effective cognitive therapy” makes social anxiety sufferers realise that their fear comes from perception alone.
Set yourself free
So, what can we take away from this?
Not everyone who suffers from social anxiety will be able to join Hoffman’s course, which is US-based and typically runs for around six weeks. And not everyone will want to re-create something as dramatic as the New York park experiment.
But, the crux lies in not avoiding your fear. Whether you suffer from full-on social anxiety or simply feel a bit shy when it comes to meeting other people, the worst thing you can do is try to avoid it. That gives your fear wings.
Instead, throw yourself right in. If you’re worried about talking to strangers, try striking up conversation with five new people every day for a week. Scared of saying something ridiculous? Then say something ridiculous (this article from the Guardian brilliantly illustrates the social cost approach in action).
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The more you do it, the more your fear will diminish. You’ll quickly realise that the narrative you tell yourself about others and how they assess you is exactly that: a tale, a scare story that you con yourself into believing. Even if the worst happens and someone walks away or snubs you, you’ll survive. You won’t fade away on the spot.
And you’ll also prove to yourself that you have all the skills you need to speak to people; they’re there, you just need to kick ’em into action.
So, what are you waiting for? Get out there, and start making a fool of yourself. You won’t regret it…
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Images: Shutterstock and Flash Pack