Do you suffer from social anxiety? Do you dread having to go to parties and family get-togethers? Do you find it hard to make conversations when mixing with people?
As we all adjust to a post pandemic world it’s easy to understand why so many of us have heightened levels of social anxiety; the survival brain now takes command in social situations, ramping up our stress hormones.
“Are these people/this situation safe or something I should stay away from?”
But it’s not just the fallout from Covid-19 that creates problems for many of us. Anyone who suffers from social anxiety gets triggered, virus or no virus. It’s being amongst others and out of our usual comfort zones that are the main problems.
This article looks at the possible causes of social anxiety and highlights the important role that hypnosis could play in your conquering it. It certainly helped me overcome my own anxieties and insecurities back in my early 20s.
Let me tell you how…
My own social anxiety – a confession
You know the situation all too well…
You’re at a party amongst a group of people who all appear to be having a fantastic time. Stories and laughs are being shared and everyone is happy and smiling. All except you.
Your pulse is racing, you’re sweating, going red, you can’t think straight and your words come out all wrong. You keep looking at your watch or phone and eyeing the nearest exit. Any excuse to get out of the situation will do!
More than once I left a party because I simply didn’t know how to connect with anyone in the room. I would feel like an outsider and on one occasion I ended up anxiously speeding away, leaving my partner there. Not surprisingly, we separated soon after.
How did it get like this, I wondered? And what can I do to change things?
Before I tell you how I stumbled upon a solution, let us look more closely at what’s really going on with social anxiety…
Early imprints of social anxiety
As babies we come into the world freely expressing our needs, making a din whenever we need attention. But as we grow up something goes awry with this natural connection with other people…
Perhaps we witnessed the ineptitude of our parents in social gatherings? Maybe they modelled clumsy social interaction and bad communication: They showed no social graces or etiquette.
Perhaps bad stuff happened in social situations, such as arguments and fights? Perhaps you were embarrassed, humiliated or ashamed by something you said or did? Or maybe you were involved in a traumatic incident or witnessed something horrific whilst in a crowded place?
Such things lay down patterns or blueprints in the brain that then serve as reference points. How you feel at social gatherings today is based on these reference points. This means that, even years later, a family get-together or a party can trigger old emotions because the situation somehow matches something that happened in the past.
The alarm reaction gets triggered, resulting in anxious symptoms: racing heart, sweating, fast breathing, dry mouth, embarrassment, clumsiness, awkwardness, lack of confidence, even total panic.
In effect, social anxiety is an emotional trance state that keeps you rooted to the past. You feel as if you are ten years old again, humiliated in the classroom.
The reason we have emotions
With high levels of social anxiety, wouldn’t life simply be easier without emotion, as if we could just press the ‘off’ switch and remain cool, calm and collected, no matter the situation? What’s the point of all this emotion?
As with everything else in human make-up, emotions have a purpose: they exist to keep us safe and alive…and able to thrive.
Embedded in the word “emotion” is the word “motion”.
Emotions exist to make you move either towards something or away from it.
We all have emotional needs – for safety and security, attention, connection and intimacy. And there’s the need for stimulation, to exercise our creativity, to learn new things, and to know that our lives are meaningful.
It is the power of emotion that drives you toward experiences that would help meet these needs and ensure your survival. And other emotions serve to drive you away from experiences or situations which, you feel, would prevent you meeting your essential needs.
This is vital to understand as you start to combat social anxiety…
Social anxiety as a means of protection
So what happens when you get directed the wrong way by your emotions? What happens when you are driven towards making social contact (by an in-built need for connection with others), but away from it because of those imprints (those previous, negative experiences of socialising)?
Some sort of inner conflict ensues.
The “motion” in “emotion” has you moving towards what you feel you need and away from what you feel you don’t want. Think lust, love, anger, greed, hunger – all feelings that motivate us towards an experience. And think about feelings that drive you away from something – fear, panic, terror, shame, disgust etc.
Hopefully, your emotions get it right and drive you toward what is good for you and away from what is bad. But sometimes they don’t.
An old fear template ramps up your anxiety, overriding a genuine need for connection with others. A ‘Loyal Soldier’ within yourself still thinks there’s a war going on and he or she will do anything to protect you (anxiety, after all, is a defence mechanism, making us run away or avoid certain situations).
This is what effective therapy aims to address, solving the inner conflict.
Fear and avoidance
So, if you suffer from social anxiety, you both want and don’t want social contact. You are pulled and pushed in different directions by your feelings.
The thing is that if social contact was genuinely bad for us, it would be really useful to be terrified enough to avoid social events because it would be life saving.
This idea has certainly been exacerbated because of coronavirus: social contact could result in death. For millions of people worldwide, this has been a terrifying reality.
But a socially anxious person instinctively knows they need social contact at the same time as fearing it; they are pulled and pushed by their emotions. (And we all know the impact of not being able to see our loved ones during the pandemic).
But that’s not the full story…
See, the problem is that the more you avoid something, the more you fear it. It’s as if your “emotional brain” draws conclusions from your behaviour: “She’s avoiding this situation all the time, so it must be genuinely dangerous. So I’ll ramp up her fear of this situation even more to make sure she won’t go near it.”
This is what most social anxiety is about: protection from perceived danger. It’s the work of that Loyal Soldier, keeping you safe.
Lion tamers and human cannonballs
Mark Tyrrell, one of my hypnotherapy trainers at Uncommon Knowledge, tells us that there is actually a way of switching off fear around things you should fear, simply by making yourself face it and move towards it.
Think of the old-time circus lion-tamers calmly putting their heads in a lion’s mouth. And what about those perennial favourites, the human cannonballs, getting themselves fired from a cannon. Both crazy behaviours!
The point is that even dangerous acts like these can start to feel “normal” to your emotional brain if you voluntarily do them repeatedly. The “emotional brain” concludes “This must be safe, or else why are we doing it?”
So, we avoid what we fear, but we can also come to fear something just because we avoid it so much. This forms the basis of most social phobias and anxieties. And, in effect, the continual avoidance simply embeds the fear template deeper into the brain.
A number of approaches have been tried over the centuries to overcome the difficulties this presents.
Consider, for instance, what happens with “exposure therapy” and “CBT” in the context of dealing with problems like phobias.
Exposure therapy: does it work?
The understanding that emotions are physical drivers away from or towards something is extensively used in exposure therapy (1). This approach typically has you gradually having more and more contact with what scares you.
Let’s take arachnophobia as an example of how exposure therapy is supposed to work, session by session…
In session 1 the spider-phobic person might be asked to look at a drawing of a spider. In session 2, they’ll see a photo of a spider. Session 3 sees them exposed to a toy spider. By session 4 they’ll be encouraged to touch the toy spider.
Five sessions in, and they will be seeing video clips (say, on You Tube) of a real spider and a week later, an actual live spider in a glass box. If exposure therapy has worked, by this time they might even feel brave enough to let the spider sit on their hand.
The idea behind exposure therapy is that spiders need to start to feel a “normal” part of experience, and this is done through forcing oneself to go towards rather than away from the feared object or situation. It’s classic behavioural therapy, and probably what the lion-tamer did to get the nerve he needed.
This can be very effective but only if you can be induced to remain calm through the gradual exposure (sometimes known as “systematic desensitisation”).
But who remains calm in the face of their biggest fear?
Therapy for previous bad therapy
Another kind of exposure therapy takes a far less gradual approach and is known as “flooding” (2). Even the word strikes fear into many! This might mean the spider phobic being put in a room full of spiders, with the idea that fully experiencing your worst fear – and surviving it – will put an end to that fear.
So, does exposure therapy and ‘flooding’ work? Yes, it can work – provided the person undergoing the therapy is taught to relax deeply, such as by using (and mastering) Zen Breathing.
But I can’t tell you how many clients I’ve had to treat to help them recover from the effects of previous therapy or counselling that only made their problems worse.
These are the ones who didn’t get better, the ones who couldn’t get past the picture or photos of the spiders in sessions 1 and 2; the ones who were deeply traumatised by being thrown in at the deep end of having to speak in front of a hundred people when they were still chronically shy.
And we now know about the negative effects of Critical Incident Debriefing and how this can often reinforce trauma in the brain. (3)
There has to be, and fortunately is, another way.
The beauty of hypnosis when treating fears, phobias, and social anxiety
Hypnosis, used competently, is the perfect way to ‘expose’ someone to a situation they had been avoiding.
As far as your emotional brain is concerned, if you have relaxed deeply and felt spontaneous at a party a few times while in hypnosis, this is a sufficiently strong indication that this situation is not dangerous, and that this kind of social event can now be “retagged” as something you can potentially go safely towards – before you’ve even been to an actual party.
Someone who hasn’t left the house for years can “leave their house” in hypnosis and “experience it” before they go out the door in real life. The ‘exposure therapy’ is fully within their own control, in sync with a relaxed mind and body.
And relaxation is one of the key components.
When you then “do it for real”, it will already feel more familiar and therefore not as threatening. There is a new reference point to pattern-match to. The previously dreaded social event may even, dare I say it, turn out to be relaxing and fun.
But before you jump ahead of yourself and start arranging the mother of all parties, it’s important to understand here that we are talking about more than just what you think and believe…
Feelings and thoughts at odds with each other
You can fully believe something is good for you and still fearfully flee from it. You can fully believe something (or someone) is bad for you but still be emotionally driven towards it (or them). Think abusive relationships.
Cognitive approaches to dealing with fears often come unstuck over this, as fears aren’t driven so much by “faulty thinking” as by more primitive emotional conditioning geared towards survival.
I talk about this in ‘The fatal flaw in CBT’. The thing is it’s much easier to access, and modify, these primitive emotional drivers through the use of hypnosis than it is through reasoning.
It is by changing the emotional blueprints that change is experienced in the real world. And once those reference points are altered, it’s easy to think differently and more positively because you’re no longer under the distorting spell of the emotional brain.
Remember, high emotional arousal makes us stupid. Our higher cortex shuts down and we operate from what I call Monkey Mind. Not so useful when trying to engage in meaningful conversation with someone at a party!
RELATED CONTENT: calm your emotional brain and think like the Buddha
What to expect when you start overcoming social anxiety
Just take a moment and reflect on what it might feel like to finally let go of those old anxieties and ‘own the room’ at your next social event. I’m not talking about arrogance but a simple and genuine calm confidence about yourself.
Think of it like this…
- You experience feelings of excitement about forthcoming social gatherings, rather than trepidation
- Feelings of calm confidence flow through you, knowing that you could talk to anyone in the room
- You make good eye contact so that you show a genuine interest in other people
- Your attention is off yourself so that you are far less concerned about how you’re coming across and what others think of you
- Words are communicated easily and you feel a close connection to whoever you speak with
- You feel more present to the moment as it unfolds, rather than hoping time would pass quickly
- You have confidence in knowing that you’ll be able to handle whatever happens
How I can help you start feeling more socially relaxed and confident
As we negotiate our way back into the world and mix once again with other people, we mustn’t let our fears stop us meeting the genuine needs we all have for connection and intimacy.
My own social anxieties faded back in my 20s after listening to self-hypnosis cassettes that were lent to me by a friend. I was sceptical to begin with but after a few weeks I noticed I wasn’t anxious anymore. Those old fears had been replaced by calm confidence.
To help you re-engage more comfortably with others, you don’t have to wait for a hypnotherapy session with me because there’s something you can do right away to start feeling better in all social situations…
My hypnotherapy trainer’s online course – 10 Steps to Overcome Social Anxiety – uses hypnosis to program your mind to feel calm and confident in social situations.
By using hypnosis – just like I did – you can lay down a new blueprint for good eye contact and make small talk become second nature. You can learn to speak calmly and confidently, connecting up with at least one person through meaningful, engaging conversation.
Whereas I used to stand in the corner alone, trying to avoid interaction, not knowing how to join in, it’s no longer an issue. I can calmly interact if I choose, or I can happily relax alone in the corner. It makes no difference. Sometimes watching others is fun!
N.B. If you’d prefer to work personally with me rather than doing an online course just get in touch. Remember, I can see you online, in-person, or we can arrange a therapy session out in nature.
Find out more in a Free Discovery Session.
- Wikipedia entry: Exposure therapy
- Wikipedia entry: Flooding
- Critical Incident Stress Debriefing: helpful, harmful or neither?
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