I wrote the following to an acquaintance, and some of this information may be helpful to my Social Anxiety-afflicted comrades. Any emphasis added is mine:
There are a couple of things to be said about social anxiety and anxiety in general and I apologize in advance if this gets a little long-winded or preachy.
The first step is understanding that any anxiety has a physiological and a psychological component. Anxiety in general activates the same autonomic systems in the body that are responsible for the fight-or-flight response, which explains the increased heart rate, the shakes, the sweats… when you get that palpable feeling of unease (or whatever you consider to be your main physical cue), it’s just your brain telling you you should probably consider running for your life. Hence, an anxious person engages in avoidance behaviors (i.e. the “flight” in fight-or-flight), and you get an opiate-like rush once you’ve fled because MAN does it feel good not to be eaten alive! Except of course in the case of social anxiety, where you’re running from your run-of-the-mill human.
If that sounds silly to you, then you’ve got the right idea. The brain isn’t perfect, just functional. Nevertheless, it’s a part of you, and like any part of you, it’s not completely infallible and will occasionally act on its own.
The part where it gets out of hand is when you fixate and ruminate on reasons for why you’re feeling what you’re feeling. For some people, anxiety has this obsessive component to it. You may have heard of what is know in the psychological parlance as "automatic thoughts": negativistic beliefs about yourself or what others think of you that come to mind without much effort or thought. These can be triggered by (and cause) anxiety.
Either way, once these thoughts start, they lead to a vicious cycle. For example, let’s say you go to a party where you don’t know anyone. You may be nervous already, your heart pounding, feeling like it’s hard to breathe, so you think to yourself "If they notice, they’ll think I’m a spaz" or "I hope my voice won’t sound weird when I introduce myself". This provokes more anxiety, and maybe you end up have an awkward introduction to the host or a fellow guest, which ends up provoking more negative thoughts (“Oh god, I really botched that. I’m going to go hide in the corner now.”) Anxiety has the nasty habit of building upon itself, and some of the worst cases of social anxiety end up being largely self-fulfilling.
The biggest challenge for me and for anyone with SA is to deliberately try to break this cycle. As you probably know, it’s really REALLY hard, especially because you probably have a catalog of past experiences telling you that you’re a terrible conversationalist, and anxiety has a way of lowering your guard so you end up reminding yourself of this.
The next step is really self-acceptance: “I have a problem doing this, I admit it, but I don’t need to apologize for it. Instead, I need to accept that I have this problem, and try to do better. If other people do not like me or do not have the patience for me as a result of my anxiety, are they the kind of people I want to be hanging out with in the first place?”
Once you accept that, then you can start the real work, which is exposure therapy. It entails doing things to challenge your anxiety in order to desensitize yourself to it. This can be anything from making eye contact with strangers, to chit-chat on a checkout line, to outings with acquaintances, to public speaking, to just being outside and amongst people. It’s not important HOW you do it, but that you do it, period, without resorting to avoidance behaviors, and that you keep doing it. Put yourself in situations where there is no easy escape, and try to have conversations about something, ANYTHING (the weather, politics, sports, technology, art, booze, etc.)
You may not succeed every time, but the times you do, you will start to build a catalog of positive self-guided social experiences which will make you feel more confident about doing it in future, and will allow you to bounce back faster when you’re in a slump.
The other thing to practice is careful evaluation of any and all automatic thoughts that jump into your head. Question them, break them down, ask yourself if you really have sufficient reason to believe them. I guarantee you’ll find most to be irrational, based more out of fear than logic.
I personally started by just reading outside, in order to get comfortable being around people. From there, I shrank the proximity between myself and others by going to a small gym and working out. Most recently, spending time at Occupy Wall Street was immensely helpful, as I was around tons of people, standing on the picket lines, and getting interviewed by random bloggers and journalists. I wouldn’t say I’m cured by a long shot, and I won’t say I was successful every time I tried, but I’ve definitely improved compared to how I felt in college.
tl;dr: your brain can be silly sometimes and it’s not your fault. go make yourself as uncomfortable as you can without running away, and keep trying!
…Here are some further pointers w/r/t social anxiety & psychological dysfunction from another correspondence:
I do have situationally specific spikes in anxiety, yes. In general, they crop up in performance situations where you’re acutely aware you’re being judged or scrutinized (i.e. a workplace, an oral presentation, a date). This activates those nasty self-critical negativistic automatic thoughts, even when there is little reason to believe that others have begun to think negatively of you or your character.
(Some people have more generalized social anxiety where their anxiety level is high across social situations, while others have situations where it is more benign and easier to deal with. I have the more generalized subtype that spikes in specific situations…situations that I can expand upon if you’re particularly curious.)
There’s a theory about anxiety and psychological dysfunction in general that depends on the interplay of structured environments vs. ambiguous environments. I’ll explain by juxtaposing two of your examples: OWS vs. the Bar.
At OWS, even if you don’t know most of the people, it’s a protest movement where you’re more likely to agree with and share the opinions and mindsets of some of the people there. There’s a certain comforting structure there, because you’re all talking about similar things, and you’re all there for similar reasons. As a result, it requires less cognitive effort to think of things to talk about, even if you’re anxious.
At the Bar, you’re faced with an opposite situation. The structure is more ambiguous than it is at OWS. The only structure that exists is that you have a set number of duties to do in a timely fashion. The workers are there primarily to make money, presumably, and may not necessarily share beliefs or opinions, but are forced to get along in order to do their jobs. Since there is more ambiguity about your coworkers, you experience more anxiety, which increases the cognitive effort you have to expend thinking about what you could possibly say or discuss with them.
Lots of people with psychological difficulties go under the radar because there are certain things that people with mental disorders do that are adaptive in certain social contexts. For example, being social anxious meant I had few friends and an anxiety about reaching out to make new ones, so I plunged myself headfirst into my schoolwork, an area where I knew how to achieve success with minimal anxiety. Some people with bipolar disorder are successful artists because their manic episodes give them bursts of energy and expansive thoughts that they apply to their work. Some people with narcissistic personality disorder are CEOs of major corporations because they have the stubbornness and exploitativeness necessary to succeed in cutthroat business environments.
My point here is that everyone finds a niche, and that mental disorders (anxiety or otherwise) are deviations from normal behaviors that can only be termed “disorders” proper when they come into conflict with society OR they cause significant personal distress. That’s why in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (the DSM, the holy diagnostic bible for psychologists/psychiatrists) there is always the requirement that the disorder “cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
As for controlling bitterness towards the self and self-criticism, you should try employing a little Socratic scrutiny. Ask yourself two questions: "What is it about myself that I dislike so much?" and "What about my person do I enjoy and find valuable?" Write down a couple of positive and negative traits you think you have.
Then ask yourself (specifically about the negative traits): Why do I believe this? Do I have sufficient reason to believe this? Is there an alternative explanation for why I think this? If I was to engage in this negative behavior/trait, what would be the worst thing that would happen? The best? The most realistic? Could I live through it if the worst happened? If I had a friend who had this negative trait, what would I tell them?
As you do this, some themes may arise. Pay attention to these. Overall, throughout this exercise, BE KIND TO YOURSELF.
You’re only human; you’re not perfect, but you’re not some vile, evil, inept thing either.