4 Unexpected Ways To Manage Social Anxiety

If you've ever experienced social anxiety, you know just how intense and crippling the disorder can be. Luckily, there's a lot of research going into treatments for it. While therapy and medication are the standard fare (and effective for many, many people), research into unexpected methods to manage social anxiety is also on the rise. For example, a new project AlterEgo is working on involves a"robot based clinical method" for treating people who suffer from social issues stemming from mental illnesses like anxiety, schizophrenia, and autism. AlterEgo has a super cool and unique background: It's a collaboration between mental health professionals, scientists, mathematicians, and computer scientists, and they're basically working on a video game to help people manage social anxiety. How cool is that?

In a clinical setting, AlterEgo's goal in the video game is that through the use of look-a-like avatars, robots can help prepare patients for comfortable interactions with real humans. Their idea ties closely with the concept of "similarity," in that we respond well to others when they appear to mimic our actions or movements. So when patients mimic the behavior of the avatar and receive a positive response (as would likely happen in real life, if we step back and analyze our interactions with others), they're getting used to what to do and what signs to look in others, therein hopefully lowering their social anxiety when they're interacting with people outside of the game.

This research got me wondering what other unexpected methods of managing social anxiety are out there. While you should always consult with a doctor or mental health professional before switching up any aspect of your treatment, it's also worth considering what alternative or unexpected ways of managing social anxiety might be available. Here are a few I found particularly interesting:

1. Focus On The Physiology

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OK, so I know this one sounds simple, but hear me out: Often when we talk about mental health, we talk about it in a glimmer of "Oh, it's all in your head." First of all, this is a problematic way to discuss mental health issues because it implies the illness is not real (when, of course, it very much is real). Beyond that, it also ignores scientific fact: For people with many mental illnesses, including social anxiety, the physical symptoms are a huge part of the experience. If you've ever experienced social anxiety, you know first hand that the symptoms are overwhelming: Sweaty palms, shortness of breath, trembling hands and fingers, and rapid heart beat. And for many people, those are just the beginning.

Many mental health professionals recommend focusing on your physiology as a means of slowing down and managing your anxiety. By focusing on your breathing, for example, you can work to slow your heart rate and control dizziness, which in turn sends signals to your brain that you are out of danger.

2. Create A Hierarchy

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No matter what your job is or where you live, most of us probably have to interact with people at some point. It's extremely difficult to live life as a hermit, even if you really, really would rather avoid everyone. Because social interactions are not something we can entirely remove from our lives, it's generally a goal for people who are working to manage their social anxiety to find healthier, more enjoyable means of doing so.

One unconventional approach psychologists recommend is to create a hierarchy of anxieties: Starting from the things that make you the most anxious, work your way down to the smaller anxieties in your day-to-day life. Then, work with a person you trust (a mental health professional, a loved one, etc.) to figure out a plan on how to approach these anxieties in a healthy, safe environment and work through them. It's basically exposure therapy.

3. Embrace Change With A Flexible Routine

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Whether you have social anxiety or not, change can induce a huge amount of fear for a lot of people. For most of us, security is key: We want to know what to expect and what paths our lives are on. In reality, everyone experiences change in some capacity, whether it's relocating, getting a new job, losing a loved one, and so on and so forth. One approach to managing social anxiety is to embrace change by building fresh routines and responses to them as they occur in your life, instead of trying to ignore change or run from it. This isn't to say that you need to restructure your entire life around every curveball, but that you may want to consider the ways you can adapt your life to fit in with the changes instead of avoiding them.

4. Talk To Others About Your Fears

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In a lot of ways, I think this one feels the scariest. After all, in our society mental health bears unwarranted stigama, being labeled as "uncomfortable" or "awkward" to talk about. However, for people who suffer from social anxiety, it can be especially important to talk openly about their anxieties and manifestations with people who can relate. While sometimes this is a single person (like a therapist or psychologist), sometimes seeking a support group can make a world of difference. Even talking to a trusted loved one, like a family member or partner, can feel like a weight is coming off of your shoulders, even if they don't necessarily have the same experiences. Empathy is key, and knowing that you are not alone in your suffering can bring a lot of comfort. While a lot of treatment approaches focus on "getting rid" of symptoms, it can be empowering for people to talk about their experiences and learn coping mechanisms and skills from one another.

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