Anxiety affects us more than we think. According to research from HealthXchange, up to 10 per cent of Singaporeans suffer from anxiety disorders, with one of them being social anxiety. As opposed to being shy, where one can still get on in social situations when motivated, social anxiety is crippling. The triggers for social anxiety are deeply rooted in one’s self-esteem, and the effects manifest mentally, emotionally and physically in a negative way.
“What differentiates social anxiety from other forms of anxiety is the inclusion of a strong sense of shame,” shares Sarah Poh, CEO and psychotherapist at The Therapy.Co. Poh, who specialises in mood disorders including anger, anxiety, and depression among others, also adds that social situations where a person has a perceived risk of being embarrassed, ostracised, and/or feeling negatively judged are common triggers for those who suffer from social anxiety.
“It is very likely that sufferers of social anxiety have existing negative self-belief, low self-esteem or perceived low social competence. Hence, being in social situations often stresses them out even more,” she says.
Signs of social anxiety
“Mentally, sufferers have automatic racing negative thoughts about themselves and the social situation that they’re in. Emotionally, it is common for them to feel helpless and overwhelmed,” Poh elaborates.
On a physical level, she shares that sufferers will experience some, if not all of the following reactions:
- Chest tightness
- Rapid breathing
- Racing heartbeat
- Excessive sweating or cold sweats
- Limb weakness
- Butterflies in stomach
- Speech strutters
These sensations can be disruptive and embarrassing, especially when you’re in the middle of a social event or seconds away from presenting your slides at a company meeting. So what can we do to alleviate these symptoms in that exact moment? Along with Poh, Kathy Gabriel, craniosacrial therapist and co-founder of Soma Haus, share some simple tips on how to collect yourself and regain control when social anxiety hits.
Slow down and control your breathing
“Your body tenses up when you’re experiencing an anxiety attack. This physical tension also results in rapid and shallow breaths, which worsen the effects of anxiety,” shares Gabriel. When this happens, she suggests finding a safe spot first, before letting go of all other thoughts and focusing on taking deep, slow breaths. This action will help to calm the nervous system and slow down the heart rate.
“Inhaling for four long counts and exhaling for eight is a good start. Repeat this until you feel better.”
Poh adds that taking deep breaths sends signals to our brain to move from the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. “Deep and slow breathing brings more oxygen to our brain and signals it to think instead of react. This brings composure and more cognitive availability to attend to both real and imagined stressors.”
Waiting to exhale
Gabriel also shares that you can take the breathing exercise a step further by consciously exhaling loudly. “This helps to expand the lungs and also slow the heart rate, which will then calm your nervous system down.
“Verbalising the exhale also helps,” she adds.
Develop your vagal tone
“In the moment, try rubbing the sides of your neck to stimulate the vagus nerve,” Gabriel suggests. Reports, including one by Psychology Today, suggest that this action helps to promote calmness and regulate the heartbeat.
In the same vein, a study from the University of Ottawa reveals that the vagus nerve is the longest nerve in your body which connects your brain to many important organs throughout the body, including the heart and lungs. The study also states that “increasing your vagal tone activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and having higher vagal tone means that your body can relax faster after stress.”
Go on and take a break
Fight, flight or flee? “Take a moment and walk away from the stressful situation, if you can,” shares Poh. “This helps to regulate your overactive internal state.”
If physically excusing yourself is not an available option, Poh suggests closing your eyes, tuning out from the situation and shifting the focus on breath control.
Keep your comfort object close
“Having tools that support and nurture a person’s wellbeing helps their ability to adapt to stress,” shares Gabriel. “For some, looking at a favourite photograph or inhaling a certain scent (aromatherapy) could be useful in these moments, as they trigger feelings of peace and calmness. For others it could be bringing up a memory of their loved ones or recalling happy memories with their pets.”
Gabriel shares that connecting with these objects of comfort before a social situation helps to create a sense of inner wellness, as the objects become an anchoring point for the person. However, she points out that what is important here is to connect these resources with physical sensations and ground it back into the body.
“It is not taking the consciousness away to a happier time or place. Instead, it is about using that image, memory or resource to create the physiological responses or sensations that engender health and alleviate anxiety,” she comments.
In the long run
While these tips are helpful when social anxiety suddenly hits, it’s also important for sufferers to address their mental health issues sustainably. Seeing how social anxiety has deep connections to one’s self-esteem, engaging a licensed therapist to help with unpacking your baggage is something to consider seriously. At the end of the day, the road to healing is always better with the help of guided and informed care.
“Work with them to identify your triggers and build a tool kit of resources to manage anxiety,” shares Gabriel. “With a therapist, you can learn how to break down challenging situations as well as challenge maladaptive thought patterns.”
Poh adds that building a healthy sense of self takes willingness to repair the accumulation of psychological damage. “Seeking help through therapy will enable this repair process and save you a lifetime of unnecessary suffering,” she says.