Saturday, September 29, 2012

Social Anxiety....Does It Happen to You?

Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety (Photo credit: HckySo)
Anxiety in and around social situations can be characterized as Social Phobia, Social Anxiety Disorder, Performance Anxiety and in some cases Generalized Anxiety depending on the level of stress it produces.  According to the DSM IV-TR, Social Phobia is a "marked and persistent fear of social or performance situations in which embarrassment may occur".  In these situations, an immediate sense of anxiety comes up and may lead into a panic attack.  Adults seem to understand that their response to these situations is unreasonable, however children may not.  Many times, the person with Social Phobia will avoid situations that cause them the anxiety, or if they can't get out of the situation it is endured with much dread.  Individuals should only be diagnosed with Social Phobia if the fear and avoidance significantly interferes with their daily life. 

English: An anxious person
English: An anxious person (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Social Phobia most often begins in the mid-teens, "sometimes emergying out of a childhood history of social inhibition or shyness", according to the DSM-IV-TR.  How long it lasts is dependent on the individual, what interventions they may use and may come and go with the stresses and demands of life.  Most commonly, it is a life long circumstance. 

Social Anxiety can also create other conditions that interfere with personal self worth and value.  If a child has been in situations where chronic rejection by their peers has been a source of anxiety, their view of themselves can become damaged.  This creates great anxiety as they are injected into social situations or performance situations.  In dysfunctional families where parents have not mirrored acceptance and approval, low self-esteem develops and accompanies the child into social situations outside the home where they wonder if they are good enough or will be approved of or accepted.
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Generalized Anxiety is more pervasive,  characterized when a person has anxiety most all the time, regardless of the specific situations they find themselves in.  Social Phobia is very much targeted to social situations and performance situations.  It is worth noting children with Separation Anxiety are usually comfortable in their own homes with people they know, where children with Social Phobia display anxiety even when the social situations they fear occur at home.

For most of us, Social Anxiety can be tied to a lack of social skills that are easily learned and implemented with practice.  For example, how many of you have felt a twinge of fear when you go into a situation where you don't know the other people there?  How do you feel when going to a high school reunion, especially the 10th reunion?  If you have ever been a part of a sales team or an MLM organization, how do you feel when asked to make "cold calls"?  All these situations can make us question our worth.  We ask ourselves, "what will I say, what do I say after I say hello, how do I get people to talk to me, what if I end up alone in the corner...that would be embarrassing, what if I do something stupid?"  These are very common fears to individuals who suffer from Social Anxiety.  Low self esteem can be a part of these concerns, but for those who just don't have good social skills, a few good conversation starters in the social tool bag can alleviate a lot of stress.

Here is a list of a few questions that you can learn.  When social situations come your way, all you need to do is decide which of these questions would be appropriate to the situation and you are on your way:

Conversation starters with someone you don't know:
  • How was your day?
  • What do you do for a living? followed by What do you like about your job?
  • Do you have a family?
  • Where do you live? followed by What do you like best about that area?
  • That's a beautiful (necklace, pair of shoes, tie, dress, suit etc.).  Where did you get it?
It is always best to ask "open-ended" questions.  These are questions which don't require a yes or no answer.  Yes and no answers bring conversations to a brisk halt and then require you to ask another question in order to get the conversation going again.  That can be one of your sources of stress.  It is also good to know that in natural conversation, the conversation will lag after about seven sentences so knowing that, you can be prepared with another question.

Remember, you are not interrogating the other person, but simply looking for things to talk about and trying to get to know them better.  Leave room for the other person to respond. When they do, listen to what they are saying.  In their conversation you will find other things to talk about.  Conversations are like ripples in a pond.  The more you converse, the more you learn about each other, and the more fodder for conversation you have to choose from. 

Here are other common questions that you can ask, once the conversation gets going:
  • Where did you grow up?
  • Do you have any brothers or sisters?
  • What do you like to do to relax?
  • Do you like sports?
  • Who is your favorite athlete?
  • Do you like to travel?
  • What was your worst vacation experience?
  • What is your favorite food?
  • What is your favorite TV show?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
  • What is the best piece of advice you've received?
  • Do you own a pet?
  • Do you prefer cats or dogs?  Why?
  • Do you like to live in the city or the country?
  • Tell me about your first car.
  • If you could have any super power, what would it be?
 In closing, it would be good to note some common mistakes that people make in conversations:
  1. Don't be rude.  Good manners are a must no matter what social situation we might find ourselves in.  Please, thank you and excuse me, go a long way in keeping a person interested in social exchanges with you.
  2. Listen.  Actually listen to what the other person is saying.  Sometimes it is tempting to think about how we are going to respond, but that often distracts us from what the person is saying.  Listening to the other person makes them feel valued in the conversation.
  3. Be sure not to monopolize the conversation.  Conversations are two-way streets. 
  4. Keep competition out of the conversation.  When you first meet someone, this is not the time to let them know you are an expert on their lives or their favorite topics.  Conversations can lead to friendships and virtually no one wants to be in a relationship with a know-it-all.
  5. Stand a comfortable distance from the person so as not to invade their personal space.  Strangers standing to close to us results in anxiety so it is always good to notice the adjustments that others are making in their physical presence when we are conversing with them. 
  6. Face the person you are having a conversation with and look them in the eye, most of the time.  Sometimes people are uncomfortable with eye contact, so look away from time to time when you are speaking, but always come back to looking at the person when they are speaking.  It shows them that you are interested in what they are saying.
  7. Don't be negative or engage in gossip about someone else.  Negativity can shut down a conversation very quickly.  Keep your conversation upbeat, positive and if possible, humorous. 
  8. Humor - the rule of thumb is if people don't laugh, its probably not funny.  Negative or self-depricating humor is often a turn off and makes others uncomfortable.
  9. Let other people have their opinions.  When getting to know another person, it is not the time to correct their beliefs or perceptions.
  10. Talk with people, not at them.  If people feel they are just your audience, they will leave the conversation quickly. 
  11. Include facial expressions and acknowledgments in your conversation.  Smile at the person when they are talking.  Use "ah-ha", "interesting", "I didn't know that" or just simply nod your head in agreement.  These types of acknowledgments let the other person know you are engaged in the conversation and listening to what they are saying.
  12. Don't interrupt or cut the person you are speaking with off.  We all get excited when we are speaking with someone who shares our views or that we strongly agree with or disagree with.  However, interrupting is an invalidating behavior and says to the other person that we only care about what we are saying rather than what they are saying. 
Knowing these simple social skills as well as having a few good questions on hand to keep the conversation going will soon allow you to be a whiz in social situations.  In order to perfect your skills, practice on family and friends.  Sometimes it helps to let them know that you are trying to add a few new tools to your social tool belt.  That way if you seem different, they will be in on what you are trying to achieve.  However, that is up to you.  The goal is to have fun!

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