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Have you been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder or do you suspect you could be suffering from social phobia? These science-backed techniques can help you reduce your anxiety levels.

Everyone experiences fears or worries about social situations occasionally — we may wonder how that job interview panel will perceive us, hope our new partner's family likes us, or be quite afraid of giving a presentation in front of a few hundred people. When fears regarding social interactions become so all-consuming that they lead to impaired daily functioning, however, you may be dealing with social anxiety disorder.

Social anxiety disorder (also known as social phobia) is characterized by objectively excessive, persistent, and overwhelming anxiety surrounding social interactions. People with social anxiety disorder may be so worried about being humiliated or embarrassed in social situations that they begin doing everything in their power to avoid these interactions, and they may fret about upcoming events weeks before they take place. The anxiety can be so severe that they experience panic attacks, headaches, and stomach aches — and social anxiety disorder can lead to profound loneliness. [1]

While social anxiety disorder is quite prevalent — in the US alone, an estimated 15 million adults struggle with this disorder — around 36 percent of those who would meet the diagnostic criteria face their symptoms alone for a whole decade before seeking any help. [2

What techniques could be most beneficial for people with social anxiety who are not yet in professional treatment, and what can help those who are reduce their social anxiety further?

Relaxation Techniques To Manage Your Social Anxiety

Progressive relaxation, applied relaxation, breathing techniques and autogenic training are separate but closely inter-related relaxation techniques for anxiety, stress, and panic attacks. [3, 4] Combined, these techniques involve:

  • Breathing exercises, such as deep abdominal breathing during which you exhale through your nose, hold your breath for three seconds, and then slowly exhale through the mouth. These breathing exercises reduce anxiety by lessening the physical impact of your worries and fears, and distract you from situations you feel anxious about. 
  • Systematically reducing the muscle tension associated with anxiety, by focusing on tensing and relaxing different parts of the body at a time. Once you have mastered muscle relaxation, you can practice it in any situation until your anxiety lessens. 
  • Positive mental affirmations such as "I am relaxed" and "I have this under control". 

Metacognitive Therapy For Social Anxiety Disorder

Metacognitive therapy is a form of talk therapy that serves to help people who suffer from anxiety understand how they believe their own mind reacts to their symptoms, and then to teach them how their mental reactions could be prolonging their agony — and, crucially, what to do about it. 

Metacognitive therapy specifically focuses on thought processes commonly associated with anxiety disorders including social anxiety disorder, namely worrying and ruminating (endlessly contemplating how a situation affects you), your internal risk assessment system and where it went wrong, and ineffective anxiety coping mechanisms that actually worsen your symptoms. [5]

Metacognitive therapy is designed to be short-term, meaning you can expect to be finished within eight to 12 sessions, and has been shown to help people suffering from social anxiety disorder reduce social avoidance and anxiety. [6]

Internet-Based Treatment For Social Anxiety

People suffering from social anxiety disorder may be especially reluctant to seek face-to-face help from a qualified mental health professional, as they tend to find talking to authority figures and being the center of attention — both features of psychotherapy — especially daunting. [7]

Internet-based treatment may be a viable alternative to in-person talk therapy, for you. Research shows that guided self help provided through computer programs, combined with limited email contact with a therapist and two exposure therapy sessions in real life, can improve your quality of life and reduce the severity of your anxiety. [8]

Realistic Self Talk

Whether or not you are ready for any kind of therapy, one self-help technique you can use is realistic self talk. Research shows that socially anxious individuals who hold negative thoughts about social interactions in their mind while engaging in conversation feel more anxious and perform less well than those who manage to hold into positive thoughts. [9]

As such, attempt to examine your own thought patterns by asking yourself questions. Are you solely responsible for the outcome of the social interaction? What is the worst that can happen? What am I really afraid of? Is my fear objectively warranted? Then, examine the questions realistically and hold the resulting thoughts — which might be something like "everyone says silly things sometimes, and that is not the end of the world" — in your mind. 

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy is a therapeutic technique during which you are exposed to situations or objects you fear in a safe setting with the aim of reducing the anxiety you experience. While exposure therapy has been shown to help many people with social anxiety disorder in a professional setting [10], even people who are not ready to seek professional help can benefit from its principles. 

Make a list of interactions you fear, and pick some to expose yourself to, perhaps starting with the situations you feel least anxious about. You may decide to order a pizza over the phone, for instance, or to greet a neighbor you meet on the way to your car. The underlying principle is that, as you gain experience in practicing these social situations, they become less of a source of anxiety. 

In Conclusion

Cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to correct unhealthy thought patterns, and pharmacological treatment with antidepressants, are still the most talked about treatments for social anxiety disorder. Not only are many people who would meet the diagnostic criteria for social phobia reluctant to pursue these treatments, research also shows that they are not sufficiently effective in 30 to 40 percent of sufferers. [11]

Exploring alternatives to these first-line treatments could, hence, significantly improve anxiety symptoms in both those groups. Relaxation techniques for anxiety represent a self-help tool accessible to both those formally diagnosed with social phobia and those who have not sought help yet. Realistic self talk and self-help exposure techniques hold potential as well. Those who would like professional treatment but are unsure about more traditional methods may wish to look into internet-based therapy programs and metacognitive therapy.

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