Six steps to control your social anxiety at work
Heart is beating faster. Your face is getting hotter by the second. Hands are sweaty and starting to shake. You are suddenly getting an urge to run to the toilet, just seconds before an important business event. If this sounds familiar, you might be suffering from social anxiety/phobia, or more specifically performance anxiety. It’s an increasingly common response to work events, where you fear you will be judged. The good news is that there are plenty of strategies you can draw upon to overcome your anxiety.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA, 2013), social anxiety and social phobia are defined as an extreme, enduring, irrational fear and avoidance of social or performance situations by others, with a possibility of being humiliated (Durand and Barlow, 2000; APA, 2013).
There is a gender difference where females experience higher rates of social anxiety compared to men (ABS, 2017).
Do you avoid certain social situations? Has it an effect on your ability to perform at work or hindering functioning in other areas in your life? Below follows six suggestions to overcome your social fears.
1. Acknowledge and challenge negative thoughts. It’s common to have persistent negative thoughts about ourselves. Deeply ingrained cognitions, such as “I’m a failure”, etc. can be difficult to shift, but with practice, it’s possible. Counter negative chatter through providing contrary evidence. Note the times when you did receive positive feedback on a presentation, built strong relationships and so on. Another technique is to imagine the worst possible outcome and come up with ideas on how you could cope. In this way you distance yourself from the situation, viewing it in a more objective way with practical solutions to draw upon.
2. Shift your focus.People aren’t just what they do for a job and so aren’t you. Keep up with the local and international news (not forgetting sports). Try to build genuine authentic relationships through shifting the focus from yourself, to who you are talking with. Stop yourself from worrying about the next question, fidgeting or looking around. Pay all your attention on the person in front of you, listen carefully and keep steady eye contact (without being creepy :) ). Uncover common interests and ask a few insightful questions; try to avoid speaking about work straight away. Remember that a deeper relationship can reach far more success, than several superficial ones. Take some notes and remember to follow up after the event.
3. Breathe. A few minutes before a stressful event, practise deep breathing to stop any unwelcome physical symptoms from developing. If you are on the go, you could use the free Calm app breathing bubble or a breathing exercise e.g.; put a hand on your tummy and fill it with air through breathing in on a count of four, hold on a count of four and breath out on the count of four. Some people find muscle relaxing exercises work like magic, where you go through each body part from top to toe mindfully tensing and relaxing it.
4. Don’t pull a sickie. This is key, as the more you avoid the type of situation that stresses you, the more control it will have over you. Your fear grows stronger and you start believing you can’t do it. Slowly build up your confidence through gradually exposing yourself to the type of fear inducing situations you avoid. Use a confidence diary (CCI, 2018) to record your progress, noting down situation, expected distress (on a scale of 0-10), and actual distress (0-10). Build it up slowly; everyone has down days so expect a few slip-ups. Remember you are not back at square one if this happens. A psychology professional could help guide you through this process.
5. Build up strong social support. Having a solid circle of friends and family to draw upon, can help you feel more secure in yourself and increase your self-confidence. For support, open up and share some of your worries with people you trust.
6. Stay healthy. This is a no-brainer. We all know that eating well, getting adequate quality sleep, relaxation and regular exercise are good for us, but try making it a top priority.
Avoiding anxiety-provoking events work well in the short run, but frequently backfires through increasing your worries related to the event. It’s far better to bite the bullet and little by little attend some events or presentations. Acknowledge and reward yourself for any progress made, however small it is. Filter out negative chatter through focussing on positive outcomes. Avoid overanalysing things and shift the focus to the person you are listening to instead. Practise really makes perfect when it comes to reducing social anxiety. Developing more meaningful relationships and pride in your achievements is surely a reward worth fighting for.
American Psychiatric Association, APA, (2013), Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, 5th Edition, Arlington, VA.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, ABS, (2017), National Health Survey: First Results
2014-2015, Catalogue Nr: 4364.0.55.001, Retrieved from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats
Durand, M.V. & Barlow, D.H. (2000), Abnormal Psychology – an introduction,
Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA, USA.
The Centre for Clinical Interventions, CCI, (2018), Retrieved from : http://cci.health.wa.gov.au