How To Know If You Have Social Anxiety: The Butterfly and the Bear
Imagine you are walking in the woods and encounter a butterfly. Do you:
A. Continue walking calmly?
B. Scream and run as far as possible from the butterfly?
Most likely you answered A, and might have even thought this scenario was a little silly and farfetched. But millions of Americans experience this kind of cognitive distortion on a daily basis. They see a butterfly and react as though they’ve seen a murder-crazed bear.
Except instead of a butterfly, the encounter might be with a coworker or member of the opposite sex. And instead of screaming and running, their nervous system goes into fight or flight, palms become sweaty, mouth dry, and they can’t think of a thing to say that won’t make them sound stupid.
Welcome to the world of Social Anxiety.
Surrounded By Butterflies: Social Anxiety At Work
Now for a more likely scenario. Imagine you are asked to give a presentation at work. You have weeks to prepare and you know you have knowledge and experience in the area. All the same you find yourself under immense pressure, experiencing stomach pain and loss of sleep as you anticipate the dreadful day.
If you can identify with this, you may be suffering from social or performance anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help.
Fight or Flight: The Physiological side of Social Anxiety Disorder
In a physiological sense, social anxiety is like perceiving that you’re in a life-threatening situation. You feel like a bear is chasing you but it’s just a butterfly. The neurological mechanism that sends you bolting through the forest to take cover is the same mechanism that gives you a cold sweat in front of your colleagues.
The good news is that the system in your body that puts you on high alert is there for a reason. When you encounter danger, whether real or just perceived, your body is flooded with hormones that activate a fight or flight response.
This is the nervous system’s signal you should protect yourself from danger. In the right situation it’s very useful!
As a physiological state however, it is difficult to sustain for long periods of time. It exhausts the body of resources and wreaks havoc on your sleep cycle, digestion, immune system, and more.
For a first-hand account of the damage caused by stress, read CBT patient Chris Renflow’s story about how he suffered from, and ultimately overcame social anxiety.
As we learned from Chris, because the fight or flight state is so taxing, people with social anxiety tend to avoid being social altogether. Sometimes just the anticipation of a social situation is unbearable due to the rush of hormones that flood the body.
Physical Symptoms That May Be Signs You Are Suffering From Social Anxiety
How do you know if you have social anxiety? Some physical symptoms you’ll experience if you are in fight or flight include:
- Your heart rate and blood pressure rise.
- You feel chilled due to veins in the skin constricting in order to send more blood to major muscle groups.
- Your pupils dilate due to the body’s need to take in as much light as possible when you are under threat.
- Your find it difficult to focus on small, day to day tasks. This is because your brain is directed to focus only on the big picture in order to determine where the threat is coming from.
- Your muscles tense up due to a swell of adrenaline and glucose. This phenomenon is also responsible for goose bumps—tiny muscles attached to each hair on the surface of the skin, tense and force the hair upright, pulling the skin with it.
- Nonessential systems, such as digestion and the immune system shut down so that more energy goes to emergency functions.
As you can see, fight or flight is at the crux of social anxiety.
Maybe dangerous butterflies and intimidating co-workers have more in common than we think.
Thoughts and Emotions: How you have the power to turn anxiety down a notch
In his book Feeling Great, David Burns M.D. states:
“Your emotions result entirely from the way that you look at things.”
Indeed, your emotions are simply a reaction to the way you have perceived a situation which in turn causes a physical sensation.
He goes on to say:
“It is an obvious neurological fact that before you can experience any event, you must process it with your mind and give it meaning. You must understand what is happening to you before you can feel it. If your understanding of what is happening is accurate your emotions will be normal. If your perception is twisted or distorted in some way, your emotional response will be abnormal.”
Running away from a butterfly is abnormal.
Here’s where Cognitive Behavioral Therapy comes in.
CBT For Social Anxiety
CBT is the therapy of understanding how your perceptions create your emotional responses, i.e. how good or bad you feel.
Whether your goal is to manage social anxiety at work, meet new people of the opposite sex, or fend off man-eating butterflies, the solution to your discomfort is the same. It’s simply a matter of slowing down and examining the way you think about things.
Is your perception reasonable? How is your perception affecting your state of being? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can train you to evaluate your thoughts and experiences in a realistic way when you might otherwise find yourself hijacked by an irrational emotional response.
Cognitive Distortions: Looking for Errors in Thinking
How do you know when your fear is rational or irrational? Whether you’re being chased by a bear or a butterfly?
Cognitive distortions, or “thinking errors,” are types of thoughts that result in an abnormal emotion. When you catch yourself thinking in this way, you have an opportunity to stop the fight or flight response before it begins.
Three examples of cognitive distortions are:
- All or nothing thinking. You make one mistake and you feel like a total failure. One thing goes wrong and it means that everything is wrong. Or, if you can’t have it all you don’t have anything at all.
- Overgeneralization. you select one negative event and believe that it is evidence of what all of life is like. You expect negative things to happen to you.
- Disqualifying the positive. Someone compliments you and you immediately question their judgment. You believe that if something is good, it must come along with a trade-off; that the good isn’t genuine.
You get a choice. You can allow thinking errors to rule your day or you can pick out the error, examine it and ultimately choose a more useful way of thinking. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could be your key to living a more confident and optimistic life.
The Truism Center offers CBT therapy for those who want to overcome social anxiety. Reach out today. Therapy doesn’t have to last forever but the benefits will.