Social/ Performance Anxiety

What is it?

Social Anxiety or Performance Anxiety can be experienced at the prospect of a social event, during, or after.  You are likely to fear negative evaluation from others, place a lot of pressure on yourself to convey a good impression and this, paradoxically, can have the opposite effect.  

How does it hold you back?

Instead of being authentic during social interactions, you are distracted by how you might be coming across to others, this interrupts your ability to focus on conversation and take in important information that enables you to be ‘in the flow of an interaction’.  This often leads to the distressing experience of feeling on the outside, rather than a part of a conversation.  When you do talk it feels stilted, contrived and frustrating; the after-experience can be one of low mood.  You are likely to want to avoid future social events, but this is almost impossible, short of becoming a recluse.

How can you overcome it?

If your anxiety is especially severe, or you suspect that your problem is likely to be part of entrenched and wider difficulties, you are likely to benefit from collaborating with a qualified professional.

However, here are a few techniques which you are likely to find helpful:

  1. Practise shifting your attention away from the fear of negative judgement and towards the conversation content.  If your anxiety is especially bad, you will need to practise attentional focus shifting on your own initially.  This involves practising a shift of attention from object to object, or sound to sound.  For example, when listening to a piece of music you would practise deliberately picking out the sounds of different musical instruments one at a time.
  2. Philippe Goldin is a researcher specializing in the impact of mindfulness meditation on wellbeing and his provisional research on social anxiety has shown exciting results.  To check out more try: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sf6Q0G1iHBI and you can also obtain free introductory information on mindfulness meditation by you tubing 'Jon Kabbatzinn' and 'mindfulness meditation' or 'MBSR' (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)
  3. From my experience, and also that of experts in the field (e.g. David Clark's research on Social Anxiety)  you vastly over-estimate how badly you come across.  Remind yourself that it is unlikely that others noticed you behaving oddly and then practise challenging self-criticism with gentle, kind words
  4. The Social Anxiety Institute (AZ, USA) have repeatedly demonstrated the positive impact of ‘slow talk’.  They have found that it has a very calming impact on the speaker, and impacts positively on the way that they are viewed by others.  Again, this needs to be repeatedly practised alone, speaking out-loud, before trying it out in social situations.  Try talking as slowly as you can without it sounding belaboured.  You might want to try recording this and play it back to yourself to get a feel for just how slow you can talk before it sounds unnatural.  This point reminds me of the scene in the recent film 'The King's Speech' where King George VI's speech therapist played by Geoffrey Rush, points out the gravitasse that comes with slow talk.  Many well known leaders have used this approach with great positive impact...... take your time, take your time, take your time!
  5. The above techniques sound simple, and they are simple but not easy.  It takes a lot of courage and determination to make these changes and you can do it.  Stick at it, be consistent and kind to yourself, watch out for the harsh self-critic, thank it for its opinion and compassionately re-focus your attention on the job to hand.