In this post we’re going to talk about three ways to retrain your brain to get better at handling social situations and the social anxiety that comes with them.
Let's Talk about Social Anxiety!
More people are feeling social anxiety than ever. The World Health Organization recently released a report stating that the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide.
And I know that for me, social interactions seem more awkward, that I feel more anxious around people than I did in the past, and that I have a lower tolerance for social interaction than ever. And I know that’s a common experience these days. We’re seeing it a lot in our clients. So why is that?
In part, it’s due to having gone through more isolation than ever, and it’s probably due to how the brain adapts to situations, but also it is impacted by how we think about social anxiety and social situations.
So in this video we’re going to talk about three ways to retrain your brain to get better at handling social situations and the social anxiety that comes with them.
1. Neuroplasticity is your friend (usually)
The first thing to remember is that all of this fresh, new social anxiety is thanks to neuroplasticity. It’s normal for your brain and your anxiety levels to adjust to your circumstances, to get used to your situation.
So when the pandemic started and there was basically like no social interaction for two months, that was really painful for my brain because I was used to more social interaction than that, but then I got used to it.
And that’s a positive aspect of neuroplasticity; your brain will adapt to your circumstances to help you feel okay about them.
So it’s like my brain just got used to that weird situation. It made being alone the new baseline, and that makes being around people less comfortable.
So neuroplasticity can be your friend. Your brain is made to adapt and change and expand and grow in response to the situations you put it in. But now, as we try to readjust to more social interaction, it’s a little bit uncomfortable because your brain thought being alone was normal. So now I’m a little bit more awkward. My social batteries drain a little faster.
But here’s what’s great about neuroplasticity: It helps us adjust. Our brains are built to adapt and grow and adjust and change. So remember that as you practice more social interaction, your comfort zone is going to grow and your brain will readjust and you can get to a place where social activities aren’t so anxiety-provoking.
2. Practice Being Social
But that process requires us to practice, to put ourselves out there even though it feels awkward or uncomfortable. Acting social is the key to up-shifting our brain into being more social again, and then it’ll be more comfortable with time.
When we practice being social or doing hard things, it basically sends the message to your brain that this is safe; you got this, and your brain downshifts the anxiety levels.
So when you want to decrease your social anxiety, it’s really essential to allow yourself to stretch your comfort zone, to put yourself out there. And you can do this by practicing willingness.
Willingness is an ACT term that means choosing to let yourself feel your emotions, even if they’re uncomfortable. Just remember you’re probably not acting awkward; you’re probably feeling anxious. Can you allow yourself to feel this emotion?
You don’t need to label anxiety as bad; it’s just uncomfortable, and you can handle feeling discomfort because it’s worth it. It’s worth it to choose the life that you want, to be around the people that you care about because that’s part of the life you want to be living.
So you’ve got to change your rules. Instead of saying, “Anxiety is awful. I can’t bear to go if it makes me anxious. I have to avoid anxiety at all costs.” Instead of saying that, you say something like, “Going to this party is going to be a big mix of emotions. It’ll be fun, exciting. I’ll feel connection and I’ll feel some anxiety, and I can allow myself to feel feelings.”
While uncomfortable, anxiety is not going to injure you. Say something like, “I can feel my feelings and be okay. I can do hard things because it’s worth it.” And this is the key to taking back control over your life and your emotions.
If you have this rule like, “I can’t feel anxiety,” then your only option is to avoid situations, and that makes your anxiety go up. But if you flip the script and you say, “Bring it on, anxiety. I can feel you and still live my life,” then all of a sudden, anxiety loses its power.
3. Defeat Social Anxiety with Cognitive Defusion
Number three: Challenge those cognitive distortions and negative judgments of yourself.
So when you have social anxiety, you’re extra self-conscious, you’re extra self-judgmental, and you’re extra good at beating yourself up afterwards. So let’s get ahead of those thoughts a little bit.
So first, you’re probably going to have a tendency to hyper-focus on yourself, to worry if you’re saying dumb things or if you’re standing awkwardly. You might think that everyone is looking at you or everyone is judging you.
These are distortions. They’re exaggerations. Most people are not thinking about you; they’re thinking about themselves. And hyper-focusing on yourself doesn’t help you have a good time or interact with others.
So practice shifting your attention to other people. How are they doing? What are they into? You could have a few questions to ask people: “What are you excited about this week?” Or “What are you really passionate about these days?” And this could just get them talking about themselves.
Next, if you’re anxious you probably have a tendency to beat yourself up after a social activity. You might think, “I am such an idiot.” So check out my video on overthinking, I believe it’s part four, to learn more about that topic.
But basically you can use the ACT skill of cognitive defusion here. Basically, this is saying, “Thanks, brain for giving me those thoughts, but I’d rather think about something else.” You can let that thought stay there, but then you just shift your attention to something you care about more.
It could be the present moment, it could be something you did well, it could be something you’re grateful for, could be some future plans, it could be your homework. But just acknowledge that thought. Don’t fight it, don’t engage in it by believing it or denying it. It’s just a thought.
It can also help to say out loud, “I’m having the thought that I’m such an idiot.” You clearly define it as a thought, then you look around for other thoughts that are more helpful for you.
You can overcome social anxiety
Number one is to remember that neuroplasticity is your friend. Your brain is made to adapt to situations, and you can use that to your advantage.
Number two is to put yourself out there. The more you practice social activities, the more comfortable you’ll get, and your anxiety will go down.
And number three, let go of hyper-focus on yourself by shifting your attention to other people and using cognitive defusion to just notice negative thoughts, label them as just a thought, and then change your focus to something more important, more valuable for you.
Thank you for reading, and take care.