So, for example, if you have to talk in front of a group and catch yourself thinking I’m going to embarrass myself, try to counter this by thinking about your track record. How many times before did everything go just fine? If this does not help, consider the worst-case scenario. What could possibly go wrong, and what would the repercussions be? Not much, probably; most of us are focused on our own problems, and many struggle with social anxiety and know what you are going through. Of course, when you are in the middle of acute anxiety, it is difficult to try to rationalise away the feeling, says Linde. It helps to work on your thought processes before and after the event. Consider your performance during the entire presentation or social event, and not just the one time you went blank for a moment, or mispronounced something. Set objective goals Automatic negative thoughts could lead you to always focus on the negative, and discount the positive. You have a chat with someone at an event and think it went terribly; meanwhile that person is gushing about how nice or interesting you were. Social anxiety sufferers also tend to maximise what went wrong in a situation, says Linde. They also anticipate – based on this skewed memory – that everything will go wrong next time. This ends up in a vicious internal cycle, and the person has typically not reality tested what others actually thought of them or their performance. We can call this a closed feedback loop where the evidence is internal and based on biased assumptions. Thinking that people do not like you or aren’t interested in what you have to say is a classic outcome of social anxiety.
There is a bias in interpreting external cues, Linde says; for example, if a person in the audience looks at their watch or phone while you are giving a speech, you think it can only mean that you are boring them. Identifying all the alternatives is part of reality testingin CBT, she says. Ask yourself what other possible reasons that person might have had for checking their watch – perhaps they have another appointment. And the person on their phone? Maybe they were anxiously awaiting an urgent text. Another way of getting around the closed feedback loop is to set an objective goal, one that is not based on how you felt during the ordeal, or what the outcome was.
The only question is whether that particular goal was achieved – and any outsider could verify that. The reaction you get from others does not matter either; just focus on achieving your goal. So if you are at a braai where you only know one or two people, an objective goal could be to have a one-on-one conversation with just one new person. Whether that person is receptive and friendly towards you is not the issue – you can’t control what the other person will do. Practise and prepare Linde thinks of social anxiety as being along the lines of a phobia and, as with other phobias, exposure is key, she says. But sufferers usually try to avoid social situations, so they may be lacking in social skills. Because of this, CBT also contains a skills component: learning social, conversation and speech-making skills; appropriate body language; how to join and leave a group properly etc., she says. These skills are then practised with the therapist or in the group, and also in public places.
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