Coping Strategies for Social Anxiety
Robert F. Mullen, PhD
The distinction between social anxiety disorder and social anxiety is a matter of severity; reference to one includes the other. The recovery tools and techniques provided are applicable to most emotional malfunctions including depression, substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and issues of self-esteem and motivation. These malfunctions originate homogeneously, their trajectories differentiated by environment, experience, and the diversity of human thought and behavior.
“Dr. Mullen is doing impressive work helping the world. He is the pioneer of proactive neuroplasticity utilizing DRNI – deliberate, repetitive, neural information.” – WeVoice (Madrid, Málaga)
“Success depends upon previous preparation,
and without such preparation, there is sure to be failure.”
We are at war and social anxiety disorder is the enemy. Successfully challenging our fears and anxieties requires a strategy. A military strategist is someone skilled in planning the best way to gain an advantage against the enemy to achieve success. As strategists, we identify the vulnerabilities of the enemy and our wherewithal to exploit them. We build the case and create the blueprint for successful engagement. We develop the weapons, propagandize our neural network, and define the territory. Our strategy, techniques, and abilities are our weapons. We lead the forces of recovery; no one else can do that for us. Strategist Sun Tzu wrote extensively about enemy terrain and accessibility – entangling ground. narrow passes, and precipitous heights. The hostile terrain is our life-consistent negative thoughts and behaviors. To successfully negotiate it we utilize our character strengths, attributes, and achievements.
Before executing our Structured Plan for Feared-Situations, we have additional key definitions to assimilate.
Once again, a Situation is a set of circumstances – the facts, conditions, and incidents affecting us at a particular time in a particular place. A Feared-Situation is one that provokes fears and anxieties that negatively impact our emotional well-being and quality of life. Examples range from restaurants and the classroom to job interviews and social events.
There are two types of situations. Anticipated and recurring situations are those that we know, in advance, provoke our fears and anxieties. Unexpected situations are those we do not anticipate that catch us by surprise.
Automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are anxiety-provoking thoughts, emotions, and images that occur in anticipation of or reaction to a situation. We touched upon them in Chapter Five. They are the unpleasant expressions of our negative self-beliefs that define who we think we are and who we think others think we are. (“No one will talk to me.” “I’ll do something stupid.” “I’m a loser.”)
Identifying situations and unpacking associated fears and ANTs are crucial to recovery.
As individuals living with social anxiety disorder and its comorbidities, we are challenged by a series of symptoms. Individually, we are not impacted by all of them or by the same ones as other SAD persons. Our issues are as distinctive as our experiences and personalities. The approaches to recovery are targeted to meet individual needs. Moderating our associated fears and corresponding ANTs demands an integrated and targeted approach. Through the following steps, we learn to:
Identify our Feared Situation(s). Where are we when we feel anxious or fearful and what activities are involved (what are we thinking, what might we be doing)? Who and what do we avoid because of these insecure feelings?
Identify our Associated Fear(s). One way to identify our anxiety is to ask ourselves the following: What is problematic for me in the situation? How do I feel (physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually)? What is my specific concern or worry? What is the worst thing that could happen to me? What do I imagine might happen to me?
Unmask our Corresponding ANT(s). We determine how we express our anxiety. What are our involuntary emotional expressions or images? How do we negatively self-label? What do we tell ourselves? “I am incompetent.” “I am stupid.”
Examine and Analyze Our Fear(s) and ANTs. What are the origins of our fears and anxieties? Discovery approaches include cognitive comprehension, introspection, psychoeducation, and the vertical arrow technique.
Generate Rational Responses. We become mindful of the irrationality and self-destructive nature of our fears and ANTs. We discover and analyze the cognitive distortions that we use to validate or reinforce our fears. Then we devise rational responses to counter our false assumptions. The character motivations of psychobiography and positive psychology are useful here.
Reconstruct Our Thought Patterns. Through proactive neuroplasticity and cognitive approaches, we convert our thought patterns by replacing or overwhelming our toxic thoughts and behaviors with healthy productive ones. The process is facilitated by the rapid, concentrated, neurological stimulation of DRNI (the deliberate, repetitive neural input of information).
Devise a Structured Plan for Our Feared Situations(s). Utilizing our learned tools and techniques, we develop a plan to challenge our situational fears and anxieties by devising a strategy and incorporating targeted coping mechanisms.
Practice the Plan in Non-Threatening Simulated Situations. We strengthen our rational responses by repeatedly implementing the Plan in practiced exercises including role play and other workshop interactivities. Affirmative Visualization is a valuable scientific tool.
Expose Ourselves to the Feared Situation. We challenge our anxieties and corresponding ANTs on-site in real life. This transpires after a suitable period of graded exposure to facilitate the reconstruction of our neural network and a familiarity with the prescribed tools and techniques.
Workshop participants are asked to list their top five anxiety-provoking situations. First on George’s list was speaking in front of a group or audience. His corresponding fears were that he would not be taken seriously and be overwhelmed as the center of attention. His automatic negative thoughts were “I will be criticized” and “They will ridicule my anxiety.” Rational responses to these fears and ANTs are multiple. Among others, George chose “I deserve to be here” and “I am as worthy as everyone else.” Using this information, he created his Structured Plan for Feared-Situations.
Coping Strategies and Mechanisms
A coping strategy is our plan of action, and coping mechanisms are the tools or weapons we utilize to implement our strategy. To paraphrase the strategic offensive principle of war, “The best defense against social anxiety is a good offense” There are many moving parts to a counteroffensive requiring different levels of responsibility and expertise. At the top, we have our military strategists like Napoleon, Hannibal, and Eisenhower whose roles were to develop structured plans of action to outmaneuver the opponent. In recovery, this is our coping strategy designed to outmaneuver our social anxiety disorder – to moderate our fears and anxieties.
We then identify the actions or measurable steps needed to execute our strategy. In military jargon, those are the tactics implemented by field officers on the ground. In recovery, these are our coping mechanisms. A definitive strategy also identifies what resources are needed to implement the tactics. On the battlefield, the resources are the infantry, the training, and the equipment. In recovery, we are all these.
This process of strategizing is not linear or trickle-down, but complementary to its accessible assets. A smart military strategist plots the counteroffensive around the available weaponry, the expertise of the field officers, and the numbers and capabilities of the ground troops. In recovery, our coping strategy is fashioned around our ability to execute it. In Chapters Nineteen and Twenty-One, we explore some of the coping mechanisms that support our efforts.
In recovery, we do not have strategists to plan our counteroffensive nor officers on the ground to tactically implement it. We are the generals, the field officers, and the foot soldiers. The onus of recovery is on us. We are in an enviable position; recovery through proactive neuroplasticity empowers us to take control of our emotional well-being and quality of life. Master orator, William Jennings Bryan never became president but was the youngest person in U.S. History to be nominated – three times. He wrote, “Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
There are maladaptive and adaptive coping strategies. Since maladaptive is particular to social anxiety disorder, we focus on adaptive coping strategies to counter our negative thoughts and behaviors. Experts tout problem-focused strategies, emotional-focused strategies, and a plethora of others. Multiple strategies are used in recovery including response-focused and cognitive-focused.
We use our coping mechanisms and skills in anticipated and recurring situations as well as unexpected ones. For the latter, we cultivate generic skills useful in any stressful occasion. For predetermined situations, we devise a structured plan incorporating predetermined coping mechanisms.
There are multiple coping strategies that help us achieve this including problem-focused, emotion-focused, social, and meaning-focused. Each, in its own way, supports our three primary objectives, which are to: (1) replace or overwhelm our negative thoughts and behaviors with healthy, productive ones, (2) produce rapid, neurological stimulation to change the polarity of our neural network, and (3) regenerate our self-esteem. Coping strategies are processes or tools to help us manage stress. For our purposes, we emphasize response-focused and solution-focused strategies, but all coping strategies play an important part in an individually targeted recovery program, and they tend to overlap.
Response-based coping strategies pay particular attention to generating rational responses to the emotional irrationality of our ANTs. Solution-based strategies keep our attention centered on finding solutions rather than researching the origins of our problems. Recovery is a here-and-now response, The past is immutable. We emphasize solution over problem.
Strategizing how to combat our feared-situations is a crucial element of recovery. When we are facing anticipated and recurring situations, we know what to expect. We have advanced knowledge of the logistics of the event or occasion and have identified our associated fears and corresponding automatic negative thoughts.
Knowing how to effectively respond to anticipated situations is challenging enough. Devising fluid strategies to help us moderate unexpected situations is comparable to planning for the tactics used in guerilla warfare. Our social anxiety will use any means to control our emotional well-being including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, and hit-and-run tactics. These are the elements of unexpected situations. Guerilla warfare is conducted by a lesser force to subdue a stronger, more formidable force. Your social anxiety disorder is small and inferior to our inherent and developed character strengths, virtues, and attributes. That is why SAD has to resort to devious, underhanded, and manipulative tactics. Chapter Eighteen will examine the most effective coping strategies and mechanisms for unexpected situations, and those that support anticipated and recurring situations will be outlined in Chapter Twenty.
Coping mechanisms are tools and techniques that we consciously or unconsciously use to moderate stress and reduce the neurotransmissions of our fear and anxiety-provoking hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. They range from practiced skills we learn in recovery (e.g., slow talk and progressive muscle relaxation), to instinctual reactions to stress like going for a walk or listening to music. Healthy coping mechanisms are adaptive – positive contributions to our emotional well-being. Cognitive coping mechanisms include introspection and affirmative visualization – ways to mentally improve our response to situations. Behavioral coping mechanisms are interactive distractions – activities to moderate our fears and anxieties.
Unhealthy or negative coping mechanisms are called defense mechanisms – unhealthy safeguards against the thoughts and emotions that are difficult for our conscious minds to manage. Defense mechanisms are mostly unconscious psychological responses that protect us from our fears and anxieties. They are methods of avoidance – unhealthy responses to SAD-induced conflicts – that offer temporary respite but do little to moderate our anxieties in the long term. Substance abuse, denial, projection, regression, sublimation, and cognitive distortions are common defense mechanisms.
Without coping mechanisms, healthy or otherwise, we can experience decompensation – the inability or unwillingness to generate effective psychological coping mechanisms in response to stress – resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration.
Those of us living with SAD are preoccupied with the future, predicting how things will go wrong. We avoid situations because we anticipate making a fool of ourselves. We dread exposing ourselves to criticism and ridicule. Not only are we consumed with anxiety during situations, but we confront it days in advance. We create self-fulfilling prophecies of miserable and lonely solutions. It is not uncommon, as clients share, to repeatedly circle the block before entering a social situation to build up courage, only to end up at the tavern on the corner. Not only do we anticipate a disastrous evening, but we guarantee it by avoiding it. Having a strategy gives us surprising self-confidence.
There are literally hundreds of coping mechanisms that can make those stressful moments easier to manage, including yoga, dancing, meditation, painting, writing, and streaming a movie. Anything that takes us out of the stress of the moment and reduces the flow of our fear and anxiety-provoking hormones is a healthy coping mechanism and they are as varied as individual experience and imagination.
Meditation and breathing techniques calm the mind and relax the body.
Positive reframing is when you take a negative thought and make it positive or neutral.
Journaling can be a therapeutic and reflective practice for individuals facing a challenge. In recovery we use writing as a way to develop ideas and examine our current understanding of our irrational thoughts and behavior.
Positive thinking are effective strategies that directly align with positive psychology.
Forgiveness is an adaptive behavior in which an individual reframes a transgression, thus promoting healthy behaviors and contributing to psychological wellbeing.
Laughter and humor are outlets for negative emotions and stimulate the physiological system that decreases levels of stress hormones. Humor eases tensions and improves moods.
Eliciting the help of an expert. Therapy and recovery programs are even more readily available through instant messaging and video chats.
Talking with a trusted friend or colleague
Spending time with family
Venting to a close friend or family member
- Watching TV, streaming a movie
- Listening to music
Sound Therapy (e.g., Adaptive Sound Healing)
Tapping (EFT: Emotional Freedom Technique)
Exploring the Internet
- De-clutter or clean your living space.
- Reorganize your belongings.
- Redecorate/rearrange your room.
- Practice gratitude – make a list of the things you are grateful for.
- Practice compassion – be kind to yourself during the times when you are struggling, notice and change critical or judgmental thoughts.
- Practice acceptance – accept the emotions you are experiencing not as good or bad, but just as part of your experience.
- Random acts of kindness.
Take a mental health day off from work.
Take a relaxing bath.
Create a list of positive affirmations for yourself.
Garden – tend to your plants inside and/or outside your living space.
Go to the park.
Spend time playing with a pet.
Go for a relaxing or drive.
Sit outside and take in the sunlight – on a balcony, deck, porch, backyard.
Do anything creative.
- Play an instrument.
- Write a poem or story.
- Shoot and edit a video.
- Make a vision board.
Not all coping mechanisms will work for you; so also, what helps you at one time may not help you at another. There is no one right way to cope with stressful situations. Many new age coping mechanisms are only psychosomatically effective, but if they are not harmful and make you feel better, then utilize them.
It is important to remain mindful that coping mechanisms do not address the unresolved issues of your fears and anxieties. They are merely temporary ways to moderate stress and the influx of cortisol and adrenaline. Like an analgesic to relieve the pain of a physical condition, they do not address the cause and remedy of the ailment.
Going into a problematic situation without a strategy and functional coping mechanisms is jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. In the words of a master of moderation, Benjamin Franklin, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
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