How Do I Self-Treat My Social Anxiety?

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Reader’s Question

I am a junior in high school painfully living with social anxiety. I spend every day by myself. It’s like I am physically unable to talk to people. I get shaky, my heart beats rapidly, I turn bright red, and I am at a loss for words. I wish so badly to make friends and I tell myself I am amazing and people will like me, but when I get into a social situation I can’t help but think negatively. I don’t have the money or insurance to seek professional help, so I would just like to know the best way to go about talking to someone, anyone.

Psychologist’s Reply

The experiences you describe seem to match an extreme case of social phobia. The key word there is phobia. When someone has a phobia, the person’s body has been conditioned to experience panic and fear when the stimulus is present. So, a person with a dog phobia automatically goes into panic mode when a dog is present. The person can be fully convinced that the dog is harmless, but it doesn’t matter; the person’s body reacts automatically. No amount of rational argument will change that bodily response.

With social phobia, the person experiences the symptoms of panic when the attention of others is placed on that person. What makes social phobia potentially even more problematic than most other forms of phobia is that the anxiety symptoms themselves make the situation embarrassing, which then increases the anxiety, creating a vicious cycle. Any time we experience intense anxiety, it’s natural to try to avoid those situations that trigger it. Unfortunately, that does not result in a cure, or a very satisfying life. Phobia does not go away on its own.

The treatment for all forms of phobia boils down to the same thing: spending more and more time being around the thing or situation that triggers the anxiety while practicing relaxation. Because that’s not easy (or sometimes even possible) at first, this process often starts with practicing relaxation to the point that the person can better calm himself or herself when in an anxiety situation. Deep relaxation is a skill that requires practice if we are to be good at it when needed. Often the training involves “progressive muscle relaxation” as the technique to learn and practice, so performing an internet search for that term may prove to be a good starting point.

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As an individual with a phobia becomes more proficient at relaxation, they then practice relaxation while imagining vividly scenarios that cause anxiety. With repeated practice, the person will get to the point where they can imagine the scary situations and not experience much anxiety. Then it’s time to perform the same practice in live scenarios. With social phobia, those first life situations may involve asking a stranger for the time or directions, working up to starting small discussions about the weather or some other minor issue.

The bad news is that the process of treating phobia is not fun, it takes effort and persistence, and a cure doesn’t happen overnight. The good news is that the treatment is highly effective and does not take long, depending on how much the person practices and applies the process. Ideally a mental health professional would help guide and support a person through this process, but professional intervention is not always necessary. There are various resources on the internet that explain both relaxation training and this treatment process for phobia, which is known as “systematic desensitization.” The more time and effort a person experiencing a phobia can put into practice, the sooner they can see results.

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