The Secret To Coping To Social Anxiety May Not Necessarily Be What You Want To Hear
Figure out what methods will best help you cope with social anxiety can be a difficult process — but according to a recent study, one useful “secret” might not really be much of a secret at all: Just accepting that you’re feeling anxious about something might help you manage those anxious feelings. Conducted by researchers at Toronto’s Ryerson University, the study examined how people react to their own feelings of anxiety, and the results could offer some useful tools for anyone who finds social situations crippling.
Social anxiety disorder is more than just feeling shy or a little bit nervous when you’re around other people; also known as social phobia, it’s “a disabling anxiety disorder characterized by overwhelming anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social or performance situations,” according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). It can interfere greatly with your day-to-day functioning — as Bustle’s Claire Warner put it back in 2016, “it’s less ‘having trouble starting conversations’and more ‘worrying so much about going to a party that you have a panic attack and stay home.’”
Typically, social anxiety disorder is treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — a common, structured type of talk therapy that the Mayo Clinic describes as a way to “[help] you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.” It’s quite effective for many mental health disorders; indeed, research published in 2016 found that CBT is pretty much the only effective treatment for social anxiety disorder.
But there’s still plenty to learn about how to best treat social anxiety disorder, which is where the current research comes in. According to Psychology Today, this new study was predicated on the idea that it takes more than just traditional CBT to help people with social anxiety manage and treat their symptoms; it takes acceptance, too — which, luckily, is exactly the focus of a subset of CBT called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). As Psychology Today put it, “Paradoxically, by accepting the feelings of anxiety you have, it may be easier for you to change them, as is claimed by ACT advocates.” As such, this study was geared not just towards measuring the symptoms of social anxiety, but also — and perhaps more importantly — measuring how people tend to respond when they’re experiencing these symptoms.
How did they do this? By improving an existing scale, the Social Anxiety-Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (SA-AAQ). The original version consisted of 19 items — but across two different studies (one featuring undergraduate participants and the other featuring a clinical sample), the researchers found that an eight-item scale, was much more effective. For the Brief Social Anxiety-Acceptance and Action Questionnaire (B-SA-AAQ), the participants were asked to rate themselves for each of the eight items on a scale of one to seven, with one meaning “never true” and seven meaning “always true.” The items are as follows:
- Being socially anxious makes it difficult for me to live a life I value.
- I tell myself I shouldn’t have certain thoughts about social anxiety.
- I would gladly sacrifice important things in my life to be able to stop being socially anxious.
- I criticize myself for having irrational or inappropriate social anxiety.
- My social anxiety must decrease before I can take important steps in my life.
- I make judgments about whether my thoughts about my social anxiety are good or bad.
- My social anxiety does not interfere with the way I want to live my life.
- I disapprove of myself when I feel socially anxious.
As you may have noticed, the odd-numbered items are the “action” items, while the even-numbered ones are the “acceptance” ones. When both types of items are taken together, they illustrate whether or not you start by trying to fight your anxious feelings, then follow it up by trying to make a plan meant to enact change. As Psychology Today noted, “If you’re scoring close to sevens on the odd numbered items, it means you’re ready to commit to reducing these feelings.” If you’re scoring on the low end, though, Acceptance Commitment Therapy might but worth looking into.
What ACT offers is a way to get more comfortable with acknowledging your feelings, then figure out how you want to act in any given situation based on them — that is, instead of trying to convince yourself that the situation is less anxiety-inducing than you feel like it is, ACT lets you acknowledge that,yes, this situation is making you super anxious; then, it helps you figure out whether you need to try to change your feelings of anxiety, and you decide that you do, it can help you commit to a plan that will accomplish that goal. The acronym itself, as Psychology Today’s primer on ACT points out, can be used as a pneumonic device to help you remember the steps:
- Step one: Accept your reactions and be present.
- Step two: Choose a valued direction.
- Step three: Takeaction.
Get it? Accept, Choose, Take? ACT? I see what you did there,Psychology Today.
And, of course, since accepting a difficult situation or difficult feelings is easier said than done, ACT will help you develop strategies or techniques to use to accomplish each of those three steps. These strategies might include giving yourself permission to fail, taking notes on exactly how you’re feeling at any given time, or observing that you might have specific weaknesses, but that you also have specific strengths.
Or, y’know, you could always try embarrassing yourself in public to help you deal with your social anxiety instead. That apparently works, too. The beauty of treating social anxiety is that each person is different and unique — which means that you have the freedom to try all sorts of things to figure out what works specifically for you.
So, hey, if you think you need help, don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional; a good therapist will work with you to figure out exactly what you need. Full steam ahead!