Dr Elaine Ryan
Page last reviewed and updated by Dr Elaine Ryan on
11th May 2020
Looking back on it, I would not have thought of myself as having social anxiety. Probably like most people, it was just how I was. I did not know any different, so assumed it was normal – normal for me anyway.
Elaine Ryan of MoodSmith ( yes we can have social anxiety too! ) This is my experience of Social Anxiety
if you would like my help, you can jump straight to my course, or continue reading
How did social anxiety affect me?
In order to explain this, I am going to give a few examples that I remember.
Being in a friend’s home, on Christmas Day.
I arrived after presents were opened. After dinner, a present was given to me
This is for you, from my mum.”….to which I replied,
Oh, was it a gift she didn’t like and wrapped it up for me?
I imagine I appeared rude. Certainly inside my head for the rest of the day (and a day or two after) no matter what way I looked at it, I couldn’t believe that I had said that.
Those of you reading this, with with social anxiety, will recognize how it played out in my head.
“why did I say that? What must they think of me? Did they notice? How did they react?
All of these thoughts, kept the feelings of embarrassment, shame and anxiety alive. I tried to enjoy the day, but my head kept going back to how I responded after being given a gift.
Years later, and now working as a psychologist ;) I know I wasn’t meaning to be rude, and can actually forgive myself for it and let it go.
Let’s look at it again.
I was given a gift. In a split second my head had to make sense of this,
was it a joke, are they going to make fun of me if I take it? This can’t be right …. someone’s mum would not give me a gift, it’s a joke.
If this is how I was making sense of it in my head, then making a “smart comment” back, fitted.
More on Social Anxiety
Being invited to someone’s house for dinner.
I did not know the people very well. The man, was well educated, and his wife, a stay at home mum. They had just bought a large house.
I had been feeling anxious on the lead up to the dinner. I had wanted to see their new house and wanted to make new friends, but I was nervous.
On the day of the dinner, I went out a bought a selection of newspapers. Seems innocent enough, except I did not read newspapers.
The reason I bought them was fuelled by fear. Fear that I was not smart enough to go. Fear that I would say something stupid and let myself down. Fear that I would be laughed at.
So I bought newspapers.
I wanted to have something interesting to say. I was so anxious though, I could hardly read, never mind, take in the information!
The dinner – the guys talked about football and cooking.
School – aged 13
I was asked how many centimeters are in this …. teacher pointing at 1m. I felt acute embarrassment as I could not answer.
The reason I could not answer was because I needed glasses and did not want to wear them!
I never said this in the class, when I could not answer the question, as the pain and embarrassment were excruciating.
Eventually made it through school. Before becoming a psychologist, my first degree was in Finance.
I ended up working in a series of jobs that I was more than qualified to do, as I did not have the confidence to apply for jobs in my area.
Maybe some of this is familiar to you. Sitting at a meeting or course and watching everyone introduce themselves. “Hello, my name is … ” and feeling the anxiety build up as it gets closer to your turn. All you have to say is “Hello” and give your name but you are feeling levels of anxiety that belong with a dangerous event.
I spoke with a friend of mine who had social anxiety when growing up. He had been accepted into a new school and described himself as being extremely shy, thinking
I don’t belong here
I’m out of my depth
All the other kids are middle class and have money and an education that I don’t have
Everyone knew my name and that terrified me
At break times, he used to sit alone, with a juice drink, and his hand always shook as he took a drink.
You might find that you are in company, having, what looks like a normal conversation, but inside your head, not only are you chatting to the other person, but you are having another entirely different conversation inside your head, with yourself.
They think I am stupid, boring …..
They can see that I am anxious
I have nothing to say
Everyone else seems to be normal
Thoughts such as these dominate your thought processes, making it difficult for you to pay attention to what is actually happening, never mind, relax and enjoy the company.
It is almost impossible to relax as these upsetting thoughts are causing uncomfortable sensations in your body. You may blush, sweat, shake, stammer, feel like your legs are wobbly.
You might feel physically sick and be concerned that you may faint. Your thought processes are now taken up with thoughts such as
What if they see I am anxious
I’m blushing, please make it stop
I am going to pass out
These thoughts and sensations in your body make you want to get out of the conversation and leave wherever you are, possibly to return to the safety of your home.
Once home, you replay the event in your head, going over and over every detail, worrying about what people thought of you.
Upset and possibly angry with yourself that you behaved (in whatever way you thought you behaved.) Next time you get an invitation to go out, you might refuse as you do not want to put yourself through that again; it’s safer to stay at home.
Anxious when not in social situations
Many people think that if you have Social Anxiety, that you only feel anxious in the company of others.
You will know only too well, that this is not the case.
You can be sitting in the comfort of your home. The place that you wanted to return to when outside in company, to feel safe . . . and you can still feel anxious.
The privacy of your own home, is a great place to mull over what happened when you were talking to someone or worry about the next time you have to meet up with people.
Even though the situation that was causing you to feel uncomfortable is over (or has yet to happen), you can still feel the anxiety associated with it! This anxiety can be avoided.
If you think about it. The event is over.
Presumably there is nothing in your home that is distressing. Even though we don’t mean to, we are causing this secondary anxiety ourselves.
What this simply means is, the first anxiety was experienced, as it was happening, when you were in the company of others. Once you left, and returned home, the secondary anxiety is what we do to ourselves by replaying the event like an old movie in our head.
Pausing the movie at points that really upset us to analyze them further. Rewind and play the scary bits again. The more we do this, the easier it is for our brain to make a really good pathway and match up the social event with high levels of anxiety.
To clarify a bit further. Think of a time you felt anxious in social situations. Did you think about it later and replay it over again in your head?
Did you stop and rewind over and over again and feel stressed, upset or angry with yourself? Think of your brain as a storehouse for the movie you are creating.
The more you play the upsetting parts of the movie in your head and feel upset, your brain is getting more and more chances to store this as something that it needs to watch out for in the future, as it seems to be a potential dangerous situation.
Understanding social anxiety
I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Many of you will be able to identify with some of the things that I am talking about. I need to tell you,
There is a way out. People can come out the other end of this. I did.
The shame has gone, the second guessing every single thing has gone. I am not a perfect human being. If you knew me, you would know that I am renowned for “clangers.”
Saying wildly stupid things at the wrong moment, but the great thing is, I can laugh at it.
There is no embarrassment. No second guessing what “others” are thinking about me. No going over it in my head like a movie, play, pause, rewind, play …
How to get over it
The purpose of providing my own personal case study here, is to let you know, that it is not just you!
Social anxiety does not discriminate color, sex, religion, age or intelligence – it is free for us all to feel.
I came out the other end, long before I started this website or even made the program. Anxiety fuelled my interest in becoming a psychologist.
What I have discovered over the years, is that, in order to recover from social anxiety, you need to do the following.
- Recognize you have social anxiety
- See it as “patterns” or “habits” in your brain.
What do I mean by this?
People tend to get hung up on the content. The questions, the second guessing, the “what if’s”. That is, you might get preoccupied with how you think other people see you, or how you see yourself. We get caught up in the details.
- Seeing the big picture – see social anxiety as a habit.
This will be a bit long winded, but stay with me, as it might just help you.
What your brain pays attention to becomes real
When you first learn a skill, any skill, the following things happen;
- You have to pay attention and use conscious thought
- Practice makes perfect – you practice the skill and it starts to get easier.
- As you repeat the procedure, neural pathways are getting laid down in your brain. The more you practice, the stronger these pathways become until the task is stored in what is called procedural memory.
- Procedural memory is outside of conscious control – anything you do using procedural memory, requires no effort on your part. Like riding a bike or reading this page. You can just do it, you might not know how you do it, but you can.
You pay attention to learning to read.
It becomes automatic – you have developed the skill – you can read.
You pay attention to learning to ride a bike
It becomes automatic – you can ride a bike
What you pay attention to; becomes real.
What has this got to do with Social Anxiety?
Everything. I believe it has the key to putting an end to your social anxiety.
None of us become anxious on purpose, but if we apply the principle outlined above to the examples I gave you from my own personal life, it will look something like this.
“I wish I didn’t say that, what must they think of me?”
These thoughts are accompanied with feelings of embarrassment, worry and stress.
Later in the day, after the event that caused the thoughts above, is over. I go over it again and again in my head. Like watching a movie. I analyze every detail and feel the pain of it in my body.
Next day, there is something new that I am ashamed of, or worried about, or believe that I let myself down in some way. I repeat the procedure again.The thoughts and feelings are getting compounded. Just like learning a new skill, my brain is forming pathways relating to these thoughts and feelings.
If I experience them enough, it is the same as practising a new skill.
Eventually I have a procedural memory of it all – all the thoughts and their related feelings are now automatic. My brain can provide me with these thoughts and similar ones, in situations that I have had them before, with no conscious thought on my part. It happens automatically.
Beginnings of Social Anxiety
In practically all situations, I can now think and feel things relating to what we call “social anxiety.” I have no idea why it is happening and seem powerless to stop it.
In my own private practice, I often hear clients say, “I know this is not rational, and try not to think this way, but I can’t help it.”
I say the same to my clients as I say to you now – it is because it has become an automatic process. It is not about the content of your worries or fears – it is what has been happening in your brain.
How to recover
You need to unlearn what has happened and learn a new way to respond.
This is achieved by;
Making the old automatic memories (that are outside of your control) conscious. This simply means you have to be aware what they are. You then can see clearly where the problem lies.
You need to develop and create new pathways, that are helpful to you.
Practice Practice Practice. This enables new neural pathways to develop in your brain. The more you practice, the stronger these become, until the new helpful patterns occur automatically.
The recommended therapy to help people get their life back on track is cognitive behavioural therapy. I use this, combined with mindfulness and information on how your brain works, in my program.