I remember the day well. Knocking on my friend’s door to invite her out to play. Her Dad, Steve, terrified me. He was loud, brash, and he was nearly always smoking and drinking. I’d seen the police called to his house sometimes, and he’d been violent to women.
I knocked timidly on the door. When it swung open, my greatest fear stood in front of me, Steve. I grimaced and waited for him to hit me or hurt me for disrupting his day.
“C-Can Louise come out.. to play?” I stammered, barely making eye contact with him.
“Eh, get yer shoes on” he said gruffly to Louise. He held the door open as I watched her put her shoes on, “don’t go too far” he said as she ducked beneath his arm. I was shocked. What just happened?
For a long time, I’d avoided hanging out with my friends. I hated being away from home, I had a fear of almost everything. Even if I stayed at my grandparents house I couldn’t sleep. Though they were family, they weren’t my immediate family, and that made me anxious.
Social anxiety can be cruel and debilitating, and I want you to understand that even now, I’m not perfect. Even to this day, there are still circumstances that I won’t go to and places that I’d rather avoid. I can talk to people without too much of a hitch now, but if there is more than one person that I don’t know in a room, I immediately become uneasy. I hate festivals and fayres, even the very small ones. I’ve never even been to London- that’s far, far beyond my comfort zone!
I want you to understand that overcoming social anxiety takes time, but I also want you to understand that it can be done. Using two of the most important tools that I learned in therapy, I am going to help you find two effective ways to make this work for you.
First of all, we’re going to talk about Exposure & Response Prevention, the really horrible and scary part. Exposure & Response Prevention is about doing the thing that scares you without running and hiding from it. Exposure & Response Prevention is about gradually confronting your fears, and facing them head on. It sounds cruel, but I speak from so much experience to be firmly able to say that it works. Eventually the fear dies down, and that which scares us most begins to not bother us at all, or not as much. Once we begin to realise that our fear is in our mind, we can begin to feel more confident about the situation that we find ourselves in.
Secondly, we’re going to look at rewards. Rewards too are so important! Once you’ve confronted your fear, you need to make sure that there is something at the end of it for you. Something at the end of it that you want. Got that in mind? Let’s go on.
I want you to make a numbered list of social situations that you need to confront, and those that you can already reasonably manage. We’re not talking about situations that other people say you should face, this is about what you need to do in order to live the life you want. If, like me, gigs aren’t your thing then that’s fine, gigs aren’t essential. If you dream of love, though, you will need to pluck up the courage to talk to a potential date eventually! Place easy situations at the top, and the hardest situations towards the bottom.
At this current time, my list probably looks something like this:
- Spending time at home with my husband & Mum
- Going for a walk with my husband/Mum
- Visiting Mum’s House
- Visiting Mum’s House with a distant relative or stranger there
- Going shopping locally with my husband
- Going shopping locally on my own
- Going for coffee locally on my own, and staying in the café to drink it
- Going out for dinner with my husband/family
- Going into the city centre with my husband
- Going into the city centre on my own
Sooner or later, I will need to go into the town centre on my own. As much as I hate so much traffic and so many people, I need to accept that my husband can’t always come with me and hold my hand. Although I’ve done 8 occasionally, I only do 3 regularly, comfortably. I also put going out for coffee on my own as less than going out for dinner with company as I often feel that people judge me when I eat. Once I get comfortable with hanging out to drink my coffee. then I can ramp it up.
For the technique to work, we need to begin doing something that we can do comfortably and repeatedly without a problem. Once you’re comfortable doing that, move onto the next step, then the next, and so on. It’s really important not to give up if something seems scary. Stay in the situation for as long as you can. Eventually, your anxiety will die down.
Secondly, it’s important to talk about rewards for facing our fears. It works a little like Pavlov’s dogs. Once you do the thing you fear often enough and with enough reward, eventually it stops scaring you so much. If I had a triple chocolate cookie after each time I went for coffee (it’s very tempting), I think eventually I’d stop being so worried. If you managed to get five friendly smiles from five strangers, you might eventually begin to realise that people aren’t always so scary. If you manage to overcome your fear of talking to girls, eventually you might have a few numbers.
If I’d stopped avoiding Steve and faced my fears, I might have seen Louise a lot more often.
Of course, this is not to say that overcoming anxiety is easy. This is the process, but some people find it a lot easier than others. This technique can also be used to overcome other anxiety-provoking situations, including fears and phobias. If this technique doesn’t work for you or you are finding it much more difficult than you first imagined, please find a professional therapist who can work with you. Anxiety is a cruel and relentless beast, but with patience, hard work and reward, it can become much more easy to manage.
Until next time.
Stay safe & have fun.