Robert F Mullen, PhD
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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 apply to most emotional malfunctions, including depression, substance abuse, ADHD, PTSD, generalized anxiety, and self-esteem and motivation issues. 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)
Coping Mechanisms for Social Anxiety
“Success depends upon previous preparation,
and without such preparation, there is sure to be a failure.”
Social anxiety is culturally identifiable by the persistent fear and avoidance of social interaction and performance situations, which causes us to miss the life experiences that connect us with the world.
Our primary recovery goal is the dramatic moderation of these symptoms. To achieve this, we identify three objectives: To (1) replace or overwhelm our negative thoughts and behaviors with healthy, productive ones, (2) produce rapid neurological stimulation to restructure our neural network, and (3) regenerate our self-esteem.
Coping Strategies versus Coping Mechanisms
Coping strategies are the methods or approaches that best execute our three objectives. In recovery workshops, we emphasize response-focused and solution-focused strategies, but multiple complementary strategies are utilized, including problem and emotion-focused coping strategies that help us manage our response to feared situations.
Coping mechanisms are tools and techniques that implement our strategies. They allow us to temporarily step outside the bullseye to objectively analyze our automatic negative thoughts and reactions to respond rationally and productively.
In general terms, coping mechanisms help us cope with everyday stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions. They range from practiced skills in recovery (e.g., slow talk, persona, and character focus) to everyday stress reduction like gardening, journaling, and listening to music. Healthy coping mechanisms are adaptive – positive contributions to our emotional well-being.
Without coping mechanisms, healthy or otherwise, we can experience decompensation – the inability to generate effective psychological stress response, resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration.
Defense mechanisms are temporary safeguards against situations that challenge our conscious minds. They are automatic psychological responses designed to protect us from our fears/anxieties. Notwithstanding their label, many defense mechanisms support recovery when utilized appropriately.
Cognitive distortions are common defense mechanisms. CDs are exaggerated or irrational thought patterns that perpetuate our anxiety and depression. They interpret experiences in ways that don’t represent reality. We twist it to reinforce or justify our toxic behaviors and validate our destructive thoughts and conduct.
Any process that protects us from our fears, anxieties, and threats to our emotional well-being is a defense mechanism. Some, like avoidance, humor, and isolation, require no explanation. Others, such as compensation and dissociation, have positive and negative values.
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 provokes fears/anxieties that negatively impact our activities and associations.
Two Types of Situations
Two types of situations concern us. Anticipated situations are those that we know, in advance, will provoke our fears/anxieties. They can be one-off situations like a job interview or social event. They can be recurring situations like the classroom or our daily work environment.
Unexpected situations catch us by surprise—stress-provoking incidents impacting our daily lives such as faulty plumbing, an unexpected guest, or losing a wallet.
Space is Limited
Associated Fears and Corresponding ANTs
Automatic Negative Thoughts are immediate, involuntary expressions of our fears/anxieties. They can occur prior to, during, or after a feared situation. ANTs are terse emotional responses, unbased upon reason and deliberation. They are the unpleasant expressions of our negative self-beliefs that define who we are, who we think we are, and who we think others think we are.
We first determine the fear-provoking situation to Identify our fears/anxieties and corresponding ANTs. Where are we when we feel anxious or apprehensive, 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?
We then unpack our associated fears/anxieties. We ask ourselves the following: What is problematic 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 might happen to me?
The next step is unmasking our corresponding automatic negative thoughts, e.g., “I am incompetent.” “No one will talk to me.” “I will do something stupid.” “I am a loser.”
Examining and analyzing this information allows us to generate rational responses to our fears/anxieties and corresponding ANTs, which are not factual but subjective abstractions.
Moderating Our Fears/Anxieties and ANTs
In anticipated situations, we have the luxury of preplanning strategies to address our fears/anxieties and ANTs. For unexpected situations, assembling an emergency preparedness kit of practiced coping mechanisms is prudent and helpful.
Coping mechanisms are valuable tools in the recovery process. Their role is to moderate the negative stimuli within the situation, allowing us to de-stress and reframe our responses. Our apprehensions adversely impact our ability to concentrate. Additionally, we are hampered by our negative self-appraisal and the influx of stress-provoking hormones.
We develop and practice more detailed coping mechanisms in a workshop environment. Introspection, collective activities, and graded exposure are helpful to the client in determining the mechanisms that are most individually effective and adaptable.
Know the Enemy
Did you ever try to talk to someone about your social anxiety? It’s hard. Like it’s some alien disease or something. Nobody gets it. That is why we are reluctant to disclose it. Many of us deliberately choose to remain ignorant of SAD’s destructive capabilities. Others pretend it doesn’t exist or ignore it, hoping it will disappear or no one will notice. Our resistance is a significant impediment to our recovery.
It is disconcerting how many socially anxious clients are unfamiliar with SAD’s causes, symptoms, and impact. The information is readily available. When we have the sniffles, we dash to the internet and familiarize ourselves with every snake oil remedy known to civilization. Nevertheless, despite experiencing social anxiety for decades, it remains as mysterious to us as the eating habits of the Loch Ness Monster.
It is essential to know the symptoms of our condition and how they impact us. To paraphrase Sun Tzu, our chances of recovery are negligible if we neither know the enemy nor ourselves. It is pointless to attempt to assemble a puzzle if the pieces are missing.
A rational response is a logical, self-affirming counter to our fears/anxieties and ANTs. For example, if we fear criticism and negative judgment, rational responses might be, “I belong here as much as anyone,” “I am valuable and significant,” and “I am equal to anyone here.”
Positive personal affirmations focus on general aspects of our condition. We devise rational responses to rebut the automatic negative thoughts that correspond to our situational fears/anxieties. Rational responses challenge stressful incidents that impact us at a particular time in a particular place. Essentially, rational responses are intellectual evaluations of our emotional angst.
Reframe Your Perspective
Reframing is identifying and resolving negative emotions and situations by changing our perspective on how we experience and respond to them. Positive reframing is turning a negative perspective into a positive one. Reframing addresses our negativity in general, while rational response focuses on our feared situation. Positively reframing adverse experiences, events, thoughts, and behaviors as an opportunity to challenge them supports both processes. As we progress in recovery, both positive reframing and rational response ostensibly become habitual and automatic. Experts agree that positive reframing is critical for emotional well-being.
Seek Progress, Not Perfection
SAD persons worry about their performance before and during a situation and obsess about the outcome long after. We fear criticism and negative appraisal. We set unreasonable expectations to compensate for our perceptions of incompetence and inadequacy, and then we beat ourselves up when our expectations are unmet. Perfectionism is not the desire to do well but the need to be faultless. Anything less is unsatisfactory. Perfectionism and social anxiety have a parallel relationship.
Recovery, however, is a life’s work in progress. There is no absolute cure for social anxiety, but with work and over time, we experience a dramatic and exponential moderation of our symptoms. The key is progress over perfection.
Set Reasonable Expectations
An expectation, by definition, is a fervid belief that something will take place in the future. When we set expectations, we invest a strong interest in their outcome. What happens in the likelihood that our expectations are unmet? Because we have a vested interest, we are psychologically attached to the outcome. Fixed In our minds, we set it as a reality. When it does not go our way, the general response is one of disappointment.
Experts describe the reaction to disappointment as a form of sadness – an expression of desperation or grief due to loss. While it is true that we cannot lose what we have not acquired, fixing the expectation in our mind makes it real and visceral. Loss leads to depression, self-loathing, and other traits associated with perfectionism and social anxiety.
Engender Joy and Laughter
The endorphins and chemical hormones transmitted with positive emotions dramatically enhance our psychological well-being. Joy and laughter counteract stress and defuse anger, resentment, and shame. They strengthen our immune system, boost energy levels, and enhance memory and concentration. When we smile and laugh, the influx of our fear and anxiety-provoking hormones decreases. Finding humor in stressful situations reframes our perspective, takes the edge off our anxiety, and helps us take things less seriously. It provides a sense of shared community, which helps counter our fear and avoidance of intimacy and social events, improving our psychological health.
Remember, We Are Not Alone
Roughly 124 million U.S. adults and adolescents experience anxiety disorders. 60% of those have depression, and many resort to substance abuse. Others experiencing SAD are too preoccupied with their center of attention to seek us out for judgment or criticism. At least two of five people in any situation are just as apprehensive as we are, if not more so. So, when we worry and hyperventilate at a social event, we are in good company. Social anxiety is common, universal, and indiscriminate. We are never alone.
Avoid Non-Productive Situations
A primary SAD symptom is our intense fear or anxiety during social situations, causing us to avoid interacting with others. Human interconnectivity, however, is essential for emotional health. Turning down opportunities to socialize exacerbates our isolation, and we continue to miss possibilities for intimacy and friendship. In recovery, we gradually expose ourselves to situations that can engender positive social interaction.
This, however, does not mean that we need to challenge every situation. There is a distinction between avoiding out of fear and avoiding out of reason. One workshop exercise is to initiate a salutation or small talk with a stranger. Discretion about who and where we engage is important. Another example is the socially anxious individual with an arts degree attending a conference for chemical engineers. Avoidance is not only reasonable but also evident.
Remember, You Are Not Alone
Roughly, 124 million U.S. adults and adolescents experience anxiety disorders. 60% of those have depression, and many resort to substance abuse. Persons experiencing SAD are too preoccupied with their own center of attention to seek us out for judgment or criticism. At least two of five people in any situation are just as apprehensive as we are, if not more so. So, when we worry and start to hyperventilate at a social event, we are in good company. Social anxiety is common, universal, and indiscriminate. We are never alone.
Emergency Preparedness Kit
Knowing how to respond effectively to unexpected situations is challenging. When dealing with a scheduled event or one that meets regularly, we have the wherewithal to plan accordingly. Strategizing for unanticipated situations is somewhat of a crap shoot. Accordingly, we assemble an emergency preparedness kit of practiced coping mechanisms that can be effective in any feared situation.
General Coping Strategies
Controlled breathing reduces stress, increases our mental awareness, and boosts our immune system. Scientific studies show that this simple grounding technique helps moderate symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, and other stress-related conditions. Grounding distracts from negative stimuli by focusing on the present through our body and senses. It helps us manage our negative thoughts and reactions.
Our vagus nerve controls our heart rate and nervous system. It also manages our fight-or-flight response. Science tells us that the simplest way to manipulate our vagus nerve is to practice controlled breathing, which decreases the flow of cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine while releasing mood and memory-enhancing chemical hormones like GABA and serotonin.
Positive Personal Affirmations
Positive personal affirmations are self-motivating and empowering statements that help us focus on goals, challenge negative, self-defeating beliefs, and reprogram our subconscious minds. We drastically underestimate the significance and effectiveness of PPAs because we need to understand their neuroscience. Providing all the neural benefits of positive reinforcement, our PPAs self-describe who and what we aspire to be in our emotional development. PPAs are rational, reasonable, possible, positive, unconditional, problem-focused, brief, and in first-person present or future time. Think of positive personal affirmations as aspirations or self-fulfilling prophecies that, through deliberate repetition, help replace our abundance of negative neural information with healthy, productive input.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR is another grounding technique. We progressively relax our muscle groups, beginning with the lower extremities and extending to the forehead. Like controlled breathing, there are long and short applications. Abbreviated PMR takes less than a minute and can be executed surreptitiously during any situation. This coping mechanism relieves the discomforting muscle tension aggravated by stress. It also reduces the influx of our fear and anxiety-provoking hormones while momentarily distracting us from our negative thoughts and reactions.
Our anxiety often compels us to mumble or rush our speaking under pressure. Slow talk is deliberately speaking slowly and calmly. It slows our physiological responses, alleviates rapid heartbeat, and lowers our blood pressure. It is also helpful to incorporate the 5-second rule, i.e., pause any response for five thoughtful seconds. Not only does this coping mechanism moderate the flow of cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress-provoking hormones, but it also presents the appearance of someone thoughtful and confident.
Coping Mechanisms for Anticipated Situations
Knowing our feared situation in advance gives us ample opportunity to devise a structured plan to counter our fears/anxieties. In providing rational responses to our negative emotional stimuli, we identify the feared situation, associated fears/anxieties, and corresponding ANTs. From there, we devise our rational responses by reframing the negative self-appraisal of our ANTs.
We develop a structured plan utilizing situationally focused coping mechanisms in a workshop environment. We practice the strategy in non-threatening simulations. This method is called graded exposure – systematic desensitization consisting of thought and behavioral modification techniques that reduce our sensitivity to feared situations.
When we feel adequately prepared, we expose ourselves to the feared situation.
In addition to the coping mechanisms already outlined, situationally specific coping mechanisms include the following:
An affirmative visualization is a positive outcome scenario we mentally create by imagining or visualizing it. All information passes through our brain’s thalamus, which makes no distinction between inner and outer realities. Whether we visualize doing something or actually do it, we stimulate the same regions of our neural network. Visualizing raising our left hand is, to our brain, the same thing as physically raising our left hand and produces the same neural benefits.
Affirmative visualization activates our dopaminergic-reward system, decreasing the neurotransmissions of anxiety and fear-provoking hormones and accelerating and consolidating the beneficial ones. When we visualize, our brain generates alpha waves, which can reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Research shows that visualizing a situation in advance improves our mental and physical performance. We consciously source information that will enhance our performance outcomes, dramatically improving the likelihood of success in the actual situation.
Focusing on our character strengths, virtues, attributes, and achievements channels our emotional angst to mental deliberation, disparaging our fears/anxieties and corresponding ANTs. It supports the regeneration of our self-esteem as we rebuild our latent self-qualities. By manifesting our character strengths and achievements, we reframe our perspective, empowering our assets and generating renewed self-confidence and viability.
A distraction is another grounding technique that momentarily channels our attention away from our fears/anxieties. Also called directed attention, we focus on specific sensations, items, or activities to supersede moments of stress and discomfort in our feared situation. These physical and mental distractions temporarily remove us from our fears/anxieties and help us manage our negative thoughts and reactions. Snapping a rubber band on our wrist to momentarily ground our attention is a prime example of a distraction.
Our persona is the social face we present to our exposure situation(s), designed to make a focused impression while concealing the visibility of our social anxiety. We have multiple personas. We present differently depending upon the context of the situation, e.g., a sports event versus an interview for a job or a family dinner versus a fraternity bash.
A static or negative persona (e.g., SAD-induced) inhibits our psychological development. A strong sense of self-esteem relates to the outside world through flexible personas adaptable to different situations. Establishing a persona is similar to an actor preparing for a role. While we may employ new mannerisms, a different stride, or attitude, a persona is not another self. It is an affectation – a novel rendering of our personality. It is also a formidable distraction.
Projected Positive Outcome
Our projected positive outcome is the reasonable expectations we set for our feared situation. We already know the projected negative outcome if we capitulate to our ANTs. Therefore, we rationally respond by setting reasonable expectations. A sensible projected positive outcome is rational, practical, and doable to ensure success. For example, expecting to be immediately hired with a fantastic salary at a networking event is not a reasonable expectation. Making an initial and fruitful contact is a more reasonable projected positive outcome.
Purpose is the primary motivation behind our exposure to a situation. What do we seek or hope to accomplish? Why are we exposing ourselves? If the situation is the barbershop or beauty salon (not uncommon sources of anxiety), it is reasonable to consider that our purpose is get our hair cut or styled. It may be something else, however. Purpose is a subjective determination.
Attending a social event offers multiple purposes. We may want to network, make friends, and seek an intimate relationship. Maintaining numerous purposes reduces the probability of success, leading to disappointment and self-recrimination. Therefore, we redefine and focus on one purpose and set reasonable expectations. To paraphrase a Russian proverb: if you chase two pigs, you have less chance of catching either one.
Small talk is an informal greeting, comment, or discourse absent any functional topic of conversation or transaction. In essence, it is polite, non-confrontational verbal interaction meant to acknowledge presence and or open channels of further communication. This activity is not as easy for those experiencing social anxiety as it appears. In interactive workshop activities, graded exposure defines the parameters and establishes the comfort zone critical to successful small talk.
SUDS Rating and Projected SUDS Rating
The Subjective Units of Distress Scale ranges from 0 to 100, measuring the severity of our situational fears/anxieties. Additionally, it allows us to set reasonable expectations of success. We evaluate what level of distress we anticipate in our feared situation (SUDS Rating) and what we project it will be upon its successful completion (Projected SUDS Rating). Again, we set reasonable expectations. A moderate projected SUDS rating will offer the probability of a successful venture. For example, if our SUDS rating of distress for making a presentation is 80, a reasonable projected SUDS rating might be 70 or 75. Projecting a 10 SUDS rating would imply that we expect a standing ovation and a national speaking tour. It’s possible, but it is an unreasonable expectation.
These coping mechanisms are specialized and focused on responding to expected and unanticipated feared situations. Exposing ourselves to a feared 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.”
Coping Mechanisms for Everyday Stress
Anything that takes us out of the stress of the moment qualifies as an adaptive coping mechanism. From listening to music to tending a garden, coping mechanisms are as numerous and varied as individual experience and imagination.
To iterate, some will work for us, and others we will discard. Some will work sometimes and not at other times. Most are general activities like exercise, meditation, and creativity. The key is to become mindful when a pursuit helps us unwind from our anxieties and apprehensions and utilize them when the stressful occasion arises. Examples of coping mechanisms for everyday stress include:
- Arts and Crafts: Pottery, knitting, photography, scrapbooks, candle and jewelry making.
- DIY: Building, redecorating, reorganizing, constructing, painting.
- Music: Soundscapes, chants, and ambient music can be restful and motivating; sound therapy therapeutic; and emotionally supportive music and songs stimulate the positive flow of chemical hormones.
- Creative Pursuits: produce videos, write, read, play an instrument, visit a museum.
- Connecting with nature reduces anger, fear, and stress and increases pleasant feelings while contributing to our physical well-being, lowering blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the production of stress hormones. Spending time in nature is linked to both cognitive benefits and mood and emotional well-being improvements.
- Personal Time: Take a relaxing bath, cuddle with the family pet, spend time with friends, colleagues, and family, fun shopping.
- Physical Activity: Dancing, jogging, swimming, yoga, the gym.
- Body Relaxation: Tapping, acupuncture, meditation, massage, autogenic relaxation.
- Self-Empowering: Gratitude list, journaling, self-compassion, volunteering, random acts of kindness.
Coping mechanisms are tools and techniques with a wide range of uses. They assist in moderating our situational fears/anxieties and ANTs. They temporarily allow us to step outside the bullseye to objectively analyze our perceptions and reactions and respond rationally and productively. They also help us cope with everyday stress, anxiety, and other negative emotions.
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