Have you ever come up with big plans for changing your behavior in the new year just to find yourself not following through within the first couple of weeks? Something important came up so you had to interrupt your gym routine and your roommate just came back from her trip to Switzerland with a mountain range of chocolate she couldn’t eat on her own, so all hopes for a healthier year were lost in an instance.
When it comes to behavior change, many people make this type of experiences. Commonly, there are two ways of thinking that play a crucial role for this pattern: unrealistically high expectations towards the self and the erroneous idea that one setback means it is over. This is an example of counterproductive perfectionism, one of the main features of socially anxious people.
But what if you were to make changes to your diet and your activity level, with a little setback here and there, but on a consistent basis? Instead of rushing to the gym for 14 days straight in January and not at all for the rest of the year, you might go once a week but do so for the next decade. Combine that with some moderate but persistent changes to your diet, and your physician won’t even notice you aged at your next medical checkup.
The Secret Potential of Persistence
The same accounts for conquering your social anxiety. Fear, shame, & sadness are strong emotions which can have a paralyzing effect on those who experience them continuously. But even so, most people with SAD are motivated to do something about their problem. While their perfectionism often plays a crucial role in the development of their social anxiety, it is frequently involved in maintaining it as well. Unrealistic standards often get in the way when it comes to overcoming social anxiety. Just like for the new year’s resolutions above, people stop trying to get better due to exaggerated expectations towards the self and believing that not following through perfectly means they have failed.
But what if, much like in the example above, socially anxious people were to make some small but persistent changes to their behavior? What if they were to allow themselves to return to old habits once in a while without punishing themselves with self-criticism? What if they implemented small, achievable changes in a way that allowed them to engage in habits that buffer social anxiety on a consistent basis?
Afraid of Facing your Fears? Start by Turning the Easy Things Into Habits
One of the major challenges for people with SAD is to become proactive when it comes to reducing their anxiety. Psychotherapy typically involves exposure to the feared social scenarios, which often intimidates affected individuals. If they do try to seek the feared situations, their counterproductive perfectionism often impedes the development of new habits. This leaves many people with the idea that getting better is out of their reach and they stop trying.
The gap between their current situation (in which exposure exercises are too scary in order to be carried out regularly) and the deliberate seeking of feared social scenarios is still too big and explains, at least partially, why so many people stop trying to improve. The solution to this problem, it seems, lies in reducing this gap by giving socially anxious people things they can try without further preparation. Therefore, for individuals who still shy away from facing their fears directly, a good start might be to introduce small but consistent behavior changes to their lives. Over time, the effects of these changes can have the power to lowering the threshold for exposure exercises.
Preliminary Studies: Small Changes with Significant Impact
Some research groups have investigated exactly that. Merom and colleagues (2008), for instance, found significant reductions in social anxiety symptoms for people that started a home-based walking regimen. The participants were undergoing a cognitive behavior group treatment and were asked to additionally walk on 5 days a week, for a total of 150 minutes. The treatment lasted 10 weeks and led to considerably stronger reductions in anxiety, depression and stress, compared to the control group (which received the CBT group treatment with additional educational sessions instead of the walking regimen). Participants with major increases in physical activity also displayed the greatest reductions in these scores.
Another research group found significant improvements in social anxiety measures for people who engaged in prolonged aerobic exercise and mindfulness-based stress reduction practice (Jazaieri, Goldin, Werner, Ziv, & Gross, 2012). There are more studies that support these findings (we are currently working on a research paper which summarizes the results of these studies, stay tuned for updates).
Similar effects have been found for the consumption of fruit as compared to having sweet, processed foods such as chocolate (Parker, Parker, & Brotchie, 2006; Macht & Mueller, 2007). In one study, participants eating fruit were more likely to experience lower levels of anxiety, depression and emotional discomfort than those eating chocolate or crisps. Nutritional choices appear to have a huge impact on our mental life (Khan & Khan, 2016). As becomes clear, small but persistent changes to your behavior can lead to significant improvements regarding our anxiety and general well-being.
4-Week Proactive Change Challenge
So, what type of little changes are we talking about here? This might differ from one person to another, but experimenting with different lifestyle choices that relate to better mental health is probably a good approach for most people.
Our 4-Week Proactive Change Challenge is designed to provide some ideas affected people might want to implement in their daily lives. It includes 28 behavior challenges, which are not to be seen as prescriptive, but rather as ideas that can be modified as wished. For example, if 5 push ups seem to easy for you, feel free to adjust the challenge to your individual needs. The challenges do not have to be completed in order. In fact, they do not have to be completed at all if you sense that a challenge is not right for you.
If you decide to participate, feel free to download the PDF document below. We recommend printing the 2nd page so you can cross off the challenges you have accomplished to stay motivated throughout the month. Also, try to pay attention to which of the challenges have a positive impact on your life. You might want to implement some of the suggested behaviors into your daily life and make them real habits. Like this, you are likely to experience some type of relief related to your social anxiety. Additionally, the benefits might show up in other areas of your life as well. We hope you enjoy the challenge and are looking forward to hearing about your experiences with it!
And please remember: you don’t have to do this perfectly. And yes, it is okay if you don’t complete all of the challenges. The important thing is that you don’t get discouraged when this happens and that you keep up your new habits.