What is it?
The most common of the anxiety disorders, social anxiety is experienced on a sliding scale. From being unable to leave the house to feeling awkward at parties, social anxiety can limit our life experiences. It can stop us trying new things, prevent us from dating and finding new relationships and in our increasingly networked world, hold us back in our careers. Some social anxiety is inevitable and perhaps no bad thing. Historically, some added adrenaline when encountering strangers and working out whether they are friend or foe kept us safe by sharpening our reflexes and preparing us for any potential conflict. However, allowing responses from the ancient part of our brains to dominate in the modern world can leave us ill prepared to interact with others in the way we wish.
How can therapy help?
Therapy can and does help people suffering from social anxiety. One way of tackling a problem is to understand how it came about. Psychodynamic therapy can explore the roots of our anxiety, raising questions such as ‘What messages did our parents give us about the world?’. It can sometimes feel strange for people attempting to join the dots between the past and the present but so often people suffering from social anxiety as adults tell the same stories about their childhoods. They are not called our formative years for nothing. This is not to blame our parents. Sometimes Larkin’s old adage is true but to understand is not necessarily to blame. Thinking about our parents’ own experience of being parented, their resources and life experiences during our childhood, can be useful. Thinking about how we learnt to relate to others can bring enlightenment to our childhood and how we relate to the world now. Often we are freed from our patterns by understanding them.
CBT is another therapeutic approach well suited to tackling social anxiety. It too can make use of how early experiences affect our thoughts and feelings. Are there messages we received then and still carry with us now? Are they true? Are the rules we live by useful or would we be better served by re-examining them? Any ideas we have about ourselves or the world can be tested using experiments devised together with our therapist, and the results reflected upon. In the case of social anxiety we can look at how we assume people will respond to us, why that may be, how right we are, and in the context of our newly tested belief, what we could do differently.
What would therapy involve?
People are different, as is their therapy. The work may be short (as quick as 6 sessions) or over a longer period, as long as the individual needs. However the common factors are that it will require effort, engagement, and a willingness to take the thinking done in the therapy room into the outside world. Why make this commitment of time, money and energy, one may ask? Anyone suffering from social anxiety, from the person feeling debilitated and isolated, to someone who simply wishes to engage with others more enjoyably, may feel that whatever they are doing now isn’t working out how they would like. And when what we are doing doesn’t work, learning and trying something different can be just what is needed.