Social Anxiety: what is it, how to fix it

Note: I do not practice as a psychotherapist and therefore do not diagnose or treat “mental illness.” This article does not constitute medical advice.

I used to be very socially anxious for much of my life. It took me over a decade to beat it. I hope this article can help to shorten the process for other anxiety sufferers.

This article is quite comprehensive (over 3000 words) and covers…

  • the origins of social anxiety
  • feedback loops in the structure of complex anxiety
  • 4 methods of emotional first-aid
  • 3 methods for resolving negative social imprint experiences
  • 6 methods for resolving automatic anxious responses
  • and 3 popular approaches I don’t find especially useful.
  • Lots of embedded video clips and links to learn each method in detail are included.

What you’re getting yourself into:

  • 3956 words, 13-19 minutes read time (not including the videos)

Key points:

  1. Anxiety in safe social situations is a learned behavior caused by overgeneralizing past negative social experiences.
  2. Social anxiety is generated automatically and unconsciously (you don’t have to practice it), therefore methods that do not change unconscious processing will get limited results.
  3. There are many useful methods from Hypnosis and NLP and related fields that can change automatic processing and thus eliminate social anxiety.

Origins of Social Anxiety

Anxiety is a response from the autonomic nervous system that says “this situation is potentially life-threatening.” It is an automatic response, not in one’s conscious control.

Why do people get anxious when social or when anticipating social situations?

There are basically two reasons:

  1. The social situation is actually unsafe. In this case, anxiety is simply a warning signal functioning usefully.
  2. The social situation is safe, but this person has experienced social humiliation, shaming, bullying, or abuse in the past — some social experience where they were actually unsafe, and has generalized that “learning” into safe contexts.

Anxiety is a Warning System: Danger is Near!

Human beings are social creatures, and throughout our millions of years of evolution as a species, being isolated from the group meant death. We feel anxious in response to real or imagined threats to our survival. When the threat is real, anxiety is useful: it signals danger and prepares us physiologically for self-defense (fight) or running (flight).

Surviving is job #1 of the human body, so the autonomic nervous system learns very rapidly (even in “one-trial learning”) to remember potential threats. Sometimes this means the autonomic nervous system overgeneralizes from unsafe contexts to safe contexts, falsely believing the safe contexts to be threatening. In such situations, anxiety is maladaptive, like a fire alarm going off when there is no fire.

The sympathetic nervous system prepares us to deal with threats by fighting or running. Our heart rate speeds up, our glands secrete hormones like epinephrine (adrenaline) into our bloodstreams to prepare us for vigorous movement. But in many cases where the situation is truly threatening, fighting or running are not useful responses. A person might feel anxious about the future of the US Dollar compared to the Euro, but no amount of physically running or punching will solve the problem. Many of the threats human beings face involve abstractions, but the physiological state of anxiety is not so great for thinking clearly about these abstractions.

Negative Social Experiences Can Lead to Social Anxiety

Most people I’ve met with social anxiety have one or more emotionally-charged memories of public humiliation, shaming, bullying, or abuse which they have generalized to safe contexts. Transforming these imprint experiences is critical for resolving social anxiety. We should also transform other automatic anxious responses to truly safe social contexts. Luckily there are many useful methods for doing so.

But first it’s important to understand another aspect of social anxiety: positive feedback loops.

Feedback Loops in Social Anxiety

In simple social anxiety, a person feels anxious only in (or anticipating) specific social contexts. Perhaps a person once gave an awful speech and now gets anxious thinking about public speaking but otherwise can socialize normally. Virtually everyone has some context in which they feel socially anxious in this kind of way, either from a negative past experience or simply anticipated negative experience.

In complex social anxiety, a person feels anxious in many different social situations. Unfortunately this has a tendency to increase over time due to positive feedback loops.

The first positive feedback loop involves emotional contagion in human social bonding. When we connect with others, we feel what they feel (to some extent). So when we are around a person who feels anxious, we also feel anxious. We don’t always remember what people said or did, but we do remember how we felt around them.

Since people don’t like feeling anxious, this creates a problem for the socially-anxious individual — nobody seems to like being around them. Successful social bonding inhibits the sympathetic nervous system and turns on the parasympathetic nervous system. In other words, bonding successfully with others reduces our anxiety. But since the socially anxious person has difficulties bonding successfully, they have more and more negative social experiences, finding it more and more difficult to turn off their anxious feelings.

The second positive feedback loop affecting the socially-anxious individual involves our uniquely human ability to take a meta-perspective on our experience. Not only can we think about a potentially unsafe context and thus make ourselves needlessly anxious ahead of time, we can also worry about feeling anxious. This is the structure of many panic attacks: becoming anxious about potentially becoming anxious. When this feedback loop cycles out of control, the level of sympathetic nervous system arousal reaches a peak and the individual experiences a panic attack accompanied by symptoms such as chest pain, heart racing or palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath, shaking or trembling, feelings of unreality, hyperventilation, and nausea.

Having a panic attack in a social setting can then create another negative imprint experience, which can reinforce the anticipatory anxiety when thinking about future social situations.

Methods for Changing Social Anxiety

Since the problem of social anxiety was not caused by lack of drugs, drugs merely mask symptoms but don’t address the cause. Benzodiazepines such as Valium and Xanax can be addictive and cause a host of negative side-effects, and SSRIs and related drugs don’t appear to work better than placebo.

Luckily there are other methods that do work.

(Note: if you are on psychiatric medications, never reduce or stop taking your medication without slowly tapering off under the close supervision of your prescribing physician. Ceasing psychiatric drug use abruptly can cause a host of nasty problems you don’t want.)

Resolving Panic Attacks: Emotional first-aid

The important thing to know about panic attacks is that they can’t kill you. You will feel like you are dying, but you cannot die from a panic attack. If you are concerned you are having a heart attack, by all means go to the ER and get an electrocardiogram. But once you are convinced your heart is medically fine, know that you will not die from a panic attack. In fact, no feeling — no matter how intense — can kill you. And that’s what it is: a feeling.

The following methods can help you calm down in the midst of a severe anxiety or panic attack. But it’s important to practice any first aid skill before you are in an unresourceful state so that you will be prepared to use it when you need it.

Tactical Breathing

If you have a tendency to hyperventilate when you are anxious or panicking, you can try tactical breathing for 5-10 minutes. This will not reduce your anxiety levels to 0, but it will help drop them somewhat.

To perform tactical breathing (aka square breathing), simply breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, breathe out for four counts, and hold your breath out for four counts. If a count of four is too much, reduce it to 3. If it is too easy, you can up to 5, but release the breath immediately if it causes you any dizziness or lightheadedness.

Tactical Breathing

For added benefit, breathe from your belly and not your chest. This is easiest lying down on the floor with your hands placed on your belly. Chest-breathing is associated with sympathetic nervous system arousal, belly-breathing with parasympathetic (and parasympathetic activation inhibits sympathetic).

EDIT 11/6/2015: A new technique called CART has shown that actually taking slow, shallow breaths may be more effective than slow, deep breaths for panic sufferers. I haven’t been able to find information available to the public except this forum post which basically says take slow, very subtle and shallow belly breaths through your nose (about 9 breaths per minute, or 7 seconds for a full breath in and out). If you are counting fast, tactical breathing could still be fine.

Note that tactical breathing or shallow breathing is not a good long-term solution! I’ve noticed some of my clients who suffer from anxiety breathe so shallowly it is difficult to tell whether they are breathing at all. This is very bad for your health, and is simply a temporary stop-gap to inhibit the sympathetic nervous system. Using this method all the time (whether consciously or unconsciously) prevents you from breathing naturally and feeling the natural flow of emotions. It also is of no use to you when you are sleeping, and many anxiety sufferers experience sleep disturbances.

Paradoxical Welcoming

Since panic is caused by a feedback loop of wanting to avoid feeling anxious, and then becoming anxious about anticipated anxiety, we can interrupt this feedback loop by actively trying to get more anxious.

When you feel anxiety coming on, simply say out loud…

“Please give me more of this feeling now.”

One of two things will happen: either you will feel more anxious, or you won’t. This creates a useful double bind: either you are in control (because you consciously increased the intensity of the feeling), or you experience mock disappointment aka humor. Either way you are not worrying about the feeling getting stronger.

Warning: repeated use of this technique may also turn you into a badass who fears nothing.

Juggling Ball Technique

Anxious people lack rhythm. This might be because anxiety only exists in one half of the brain, and coordination involves both hemispheres.

Throwing a ball back and forth between your hands can create inter-hemispheric communication between both sides of your brain and bring anxiety levels down (but usually not totally resolve it in my experience).

Andrew T. Austin demonstrates this simple technique here:

You can even do it in public walking around. All you need is a ball of some sort. I personally found that actually learning to juggle felt surprisingly helpful in a difficult-to-describe way, like my nervous system was integrating somehow.

Andy Austin does this simple method with new anxiety clients, because he finds that they can’t learn anything in an anxious state. So first he gets them to calm down by throwing a ball back and forth, and then he does change work with them.

Sprinting or vigorous movement

Since anxiety triggers a fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system response, sprinting can sometimes help to utilize that epinephrine dump and clear it out of your system more rapidly. When I am feeling any intense emotion, I like to move my body in some vigorous way: perhaps doing a set of pushups, or sprinting, or even just dancing around wildly. Movement also can help to prevent the “freeze” response which occurs when the organism believes it is in immediate mortal danger. At the very least it gives you something to do and thus makes you feel more empowered.

Don’t do anything stupid here though. If you don’t normally run, you could injure yourself by suddenly sprinting.

Regular aerobic exercise can reduce or even eliminate anxiety levels for some individuals. See the excellent book Spark for more about the brain benefits of exercise. If they stop exercising for a few days, the anxiety comes back however, so it’s not a complete solution.

Resolving Negative Social Imprint Experiences

First aid is not enough however. Just breathing slowly, welcoming the feeling, throwing a juggling ball, and sprinting will not resolve anxiety in an ongoing way for most people.

As I mentioned earlier, most people I’ve met with social anxiety have one or more memories of public humiliation, shaming, bullying, or abuse which they have generalized to safe contexts. How can we resolve these?

Movie Theater Technique (Reconsolidation of Traumatic Memories)

If you have an experience that when you think about it, you immediately feel fear or anxiety (not a slow build-up, but an almost instantaneous reaction), then this method will work phenomenally well. The Research and Recognition Project recently commissioned a pilot study with war veterans who had PTSD, and the results were full resolution of traumatic flashbacks in 25 of 26 participants in under four sessions. Many people will be able to do this process on their own, but some will need expert facilitation.

The method involves imagining seeing a movie of the event, but from a very distanced perspective. The goal is to be able to watch the event again and feel totally neutral. Once this happens, remembering the event will cause no distress at all, and can even generalize into future similar events.

You can watch a full demonstration plus explanation of the finer points of the technique from Steve Andreas here:

Here’s a video of a Vietnam Vet who used to have PTSD who had a huge shift after being guided through this method in a single 45-minute session:

The Decision Destroyer

When we have negative experiences, we often learn something not useful from them, such as “people don’t like me” or “I’m terrible at math.” This method changes those “decisions” by imagining a resource experience happening prior to the negative imprint, which then automatically reframes it.

An audio CD of Steve Andreas teaching the Decision Destroyer as well as the steps in the process can be found here. (Full Disclosure: I work for Steve.)

A free transcript of the Decision Destroyer CD demonstration can be found here.

The Decision Destroyer is also taught in The PTSD Training.

The Decision Destroyer was created by Richard Bandler and in the above links is demonstrated by Steve Andreas.

Integral Eye Movement Therapy

This is a technique created by Andrew T. Austin that uses eye movements to integrate intensely painful emotional states and is useful for anxiety amongst many other things.

A simple demo can be seen here:

The official IEMT website is here.

This method is very useful but requires facilitation from a trained practitioner of IEMT, and can’t be done very well over Skype.

Resolving Automatic Anxious Responses

Sometimes resolving imprint experiences isn’t enough, or there isn’t a clear imprint, or a different technique simply works better for a specific individual.

Voice Tempo Shift

Anxious people tend to talk fast, not only out loud but also in their head. By slowing down your internal dialogue, you can become much more calm.

A description of the steps involved in this process is available in the first part of this blog article. This method comes from Nick Kemp’s Provocative Change Works.

Voice Location Shift

Changing the speed of the voice works in about 90% of cases. When it doesn’t work, changing the location tends to work very well:

  1. Imagine or remember a context in which you feel anxious.
  2. What do you say to yourself to make yourself anxious? Listen to that voice inside now…
  3. Where do you hear that voice coming from?
  4. Imagine hearing the voice play from a small speaker over there on the wall, 10-20 feet away from you. How does that change your experience?
  5. If you like the change, imagine being in the context which makes you anxious, but keep the voice over there coming out of a speaker 10-20 feet away.

For even more useful things you can do with an internal voice, I highly recommend Steve Andreas’ two volume set on changing negative self-talk: Transforming Negative Self-Talk and More Transforming Negative Self-Talk.

Spinning Feelings

This method is a rapid technique for unraveling any strong emotion and is particularly effective for anxiety and rage.

A description of the steps involved is available in the second part of this blog article. This method also comes from Nick Kemp, adapted from a similar method created by Richard Bandler.

An edited demonstration from Steve Andreas is available here:

The full video with handouts, along with many other methods is available for purchase as part of The PTSD Training from Steve Andreas.

Core Transformation

This is the method that finally helped me to resolve all my daily anxiety. I experience anxiety now only in rare circumstances. This method is “generative” in that you get more benefits than just changing the specific thing you were trying to change.

The Core Transformation book is quite good. This is how I originally learned.

There’s also a DVD recording of the Core Transformation training.

And the live Core Transformation trainings with Tamara Andreas are phenomenal. I assisted her as a coach three or four times and learned so much from her flawless facilitation.

Live or Skype coaching is also very useful for learning this method before then practicing on your own.

Aligning Perceptual Positions

This incredibly useful, very-little-known method involves precise and subtle shifts in how we represent our relationships with other people. People who don’t get benefit from Core Transformation often find APP to be incredibly powerful, which is one reason why they are taught together in live Core Transformation workshops. APP tends to resolve relationship issues that people weren’t even aware they had, so it can be a profoundly generative process. It is difficult to self-facilitate, but can be done with sufficient training.

A transcript of an Aligning Perceptual Positions session can be found here.

The full technique is demonstrated and taught on the DVD recording of the Core Transformation training as well as in live Core Transformation trainings.

A short video excerpt from the DVD set is on Youtube:

Rapid Centering Technique

This is a method I developed myself that I have not yet released to the public, but works especially well for social anxiety. At some point I will create a product teaching it. The basic idea is to represent the feeling as having a symbolic or “energetic” component in imagination, and to drop the energy of the feeling into the physical center of the body (the dan tien or hara). It works remarkably well, even if you are like me skeptical of “energy” or “chakras” or anything like that.

I mention it here mostly because I use it regularly and to show that there are an abundance of potential methods.

Approaches I Don’t Recommend but Some People Find Useful

These are popular approaches that have some evidence base, but I find suboptimal.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT for anxiety involves questioning the assessment of risk at a conscious level by challenging the content of thoughts that generate anxiety. If the situation is actually safe, getting anxious is irrational, and is based on irrational thinking patterns. If you want to learn and self-apply CBT, The Feeling Good Handbook is the place to start.

The idea is to strengthen your executive functioning in your neocortex. In my experience CBT doesn’t make you feel better, but makes you think more rationally. I find it useful to do before doing something that actually changes unconscious responses. I did lots of this for years on myself and didn’t really feel better, but I did learn to think more rationally. CBT can also for some people create more inner conflict. CBT is about challenging “irrational” verbal internal dialogue, but sometimes this challenging can simply provide more material for an already overactive inner critic. While I found the rational thinking exercises helpful, I become more hypercritical as a result of self-applied CBT.

A lot of my clients consciously know that they shouldn’t feel the way they do, but they still feel bad. That’s when facilitating one of the methods in the previous section is very useful.

Mindfulness Approaches

This basic approach is found in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and other related approaches. The idea is to notice your thoughts and feelings with a kind of non-judgmental awareness.

Becoming more aware of your thinking, how thinking and sensations arise automatically, and how you still have choice even when unpleasant thoughts and sensations arise can be generally useful. But like CBT, mindfulness doesn’t really transform automatic anxious thoughts and feelings — it just makes you less stressed about the fact that you are anxious. I practiced thousands of hours of Vipassana meditation and while some anxieties decreased by doing so, mostly I just became able to function while feeling anxious. (Vipassana gave me other benefits, but not much in the way of anxiety reduction.)

Mindfulness approaches ideally create more self-compassion, but many anxiety sufferers have internalized bullying and abuse from others towards themselves, and so for some people increased mindfulness (without increased self-compassion) can have the effect of making one more hypervigilant and self-critical.

On the positive side, mindfulness makes it easier to notice things that are useful for then doing a technique that works to change the unconscious processing, like noticing that you become anxious in some situations but not others.

Yoga, Meditation, and Relaxation Exercises

These are great things to do for your health overall and may decrease the intensity of social anxiety symptoms. How they work is to practice entering states of parasympathetic nervous system activation (“rest and digest”) and inhibiting states of sympathetic nervous system activation (“fight or flight”).

Usually what happens for anxiety sufferers is that yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises provide a break from feeling anxious, but don’t transform unconscious processing that generates anxious responses. For that you need change work, not a spiritual practice.

Spiritual practices like meditation and yoga increase your baseline ability to go into parasympathetic relaxation which can help increase your capacity for being restful and calm. But they don’t transform the patterns of unconscious processing which make you anxious. So a person might find they are calm the entire way through yoga class only to get anxious when people are socializing after class. Or a meditator might be able to temporarily suppress feelings of anxiety by focusing on visual or kinesthetic sensations throughout the day, but they have difficulty sleeping because their conscious willpower fades as they fall asleep at night.

Many yogis and meditators alternate between feeling deep calm and various states of stress, because yoga and meditation doesn’t engage with and transform the unconscious processing that causes anxious feelings. For this reason, spiritual practice can sometimes fall prey to so-called “spiritual bypassing,” where the adept yogi can enter states of calm and peace at will, but problematic unconscious processes remain intact.

I aim to do relaxation exercises and meditation every day, and love yoga too. But I don’t think it is very effective at transforming social anxiety compared to other methods of change work. I don’t want to just “cope with” my suffering, I want to be rid of it!

Get Personal Change Consulting with Duff

I have been coaching people all over the world to make significant personal changes in their lives since 2003. I have been trained by the best, and am skilled at and use all of the change methods listed in this article with my clients (except IEMT).

Most coaches and psychotherapists don’t even know of one single technique that leads to change in unconscious processing, which is why therapy and coaching is so often disappointing.

If you have a need for expert facilitation in one or more methods for resolving anxious responses at the unconscious level, you can schedule a free 15-minute consultation here. We can discuss your situation and whether we’d be a good fit for working together.