People are scary…..It’s nearly time. My mind won’t stop racing. My muscles are tense, my jaw feels like it is locking up, and my breathing is shallow. It feels like I am fighting with my mind to stay focused, but it just won’t stay in one place. My mind barks at me: “Everyone is going to find out how dumb you are!” “You shouldn’t have bothered going to graduate school!” “You are a total mess!” “If you show that you are anxious, everyone will think that you are incompetent”, “Maybe you could say that you are sick and can’t do this group. Better yet, make yourself puke right now,” “Seriously, RUN!!!!!’ It feels like my heart is going to explode and then, the clock reads “1pm.” Time to lead a therapy group with 30+ clients. No where to run now. Hope I don’t pee my pants….
Social Anxiety and Me
As far as I can remember, that is a description of my approximate thoughts and feelings right before nearly every therapy group that I ran during my internship. The intensity of the thoughts and feelings varied depending on the size of the group and the material to be covered, but the “flavor” of the experience was always the same. I had similar reactions in anticipation of nearly any situation in which I would have to speak in front of a group. Truth be told, I often felt the same way (sometimes even worse) when I was in social situations with people that I didn’t know, sometimes even with groups of friends. No one ever diagnosed me, but I certainly met criteria for Social Anxiety Disorder for most of my adult life.
The anxiety was really hard to bear, but the avoidance of situations that brought up those feelings threatened to ruin my career and my relationships. It still makes me sad to think about all the lost opportunities that I passed up in order to avoid feeling anxious. And then there is the shame: I lied a lot to get out of social situations or simply avoided taking action on responsibilities because they would require me to talk with someone.
Facing My Fear
Although I was able to muddle through most of my 20’s without really facing my anxiety, it became pretty much impossible during my internship. During my first rotation which focused on a type of therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (I specifically ranked my internship site first because I wanted to specialize in this type of treatment), I was required to lead therapy groups and huge “psychoeducation groups” with over 30 clients. Every day I had to face my fear. It was awful, and it was the best thing that could have ever happened. I was also very lucky to have a compassionate supervisor who pushed my to seek out more opportunities to speak in front of groups. She even took me under her wing and let me co-lead a few training workshops for other professionals in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Once I told her that I thought that I was going to have a stroke because I was so anxious. She laughed and said, “Wow! That’s a good one! Thank you mind for that thought!” I did, and then I got on with doing the workshop.
Many years have passed since then. The anxiety got a little better, but my willingness to experience the anxiety has gotten MUCH better. And guess what? Now a huge part of my “day job” is speaking in front of groups. Last year, I traveled to six states and trained hundreds of clinicians. I really enjoy public speaking now, and I usually get outstanding ratings from my workshop participants.
Living with Social Anxiety
You are probably wondering what happened in those years between internship and now. How did I manage to deal with the anxiety and break the habit of avoidance? Well, I practiced what I preach. I faced my fears (and continue to face my fears) and use cognitive behavioral tools to keep me moving forward.
CBT for social anxiety can help you move forward in your life, as well. The key features of CBT for social anxiety is exposure which is the fancy word for facing the people and situations that make you anxious. By systematically approaching these people and situations, you can learn to be more willing to experience anxiety. You can also learn that anxiety doesn’t take away your social skills, that you can live a valued life regardless of how anxious you feel.
If you are struggling with social anxiety and would like to talk more about CBT, contact me for a free consultation.