Have you ever been in a social situation and started feeling insecure about the way you were coming across? Maybe you worried you would say something stupid, seem shy or boring, or you simply worried about being rejected.
While concerns like this are pretty common and even adaptive in many situations, in some people they are excessive. We speak of social anxiety disorder (SAD) when the individual’s quality of life is drastically impacted by these excessive concerns.
For many people with SAD, the fear of doing or saying something stupid is not the only reason they fear being rejected. Frequently, the physical anxiety symptoms resulting from their excessive worries add an extra layer to the problem.
Not only are these physical symptoms uncomfortable to bear in social settings, but people with SAD often fear they might be negatively evaluated because of these symptoms in the first place.
Like this, a secondary manifestation of social anxiety can become the person’s primary problem area. Let’s take a person who is afraid of blushing, for instance.
Blushing is a normal and common physical reaction related to the emotion of shame. When we feel we have violated social norms, many of us react with a facial blush. Let’s say you ask a women in which month of her pregnancy she is, and she responds that she is not pregnant. Ouch!
Yip, a facial blush, a quick “sorry” and change of topic might be the right thing to do in this situation. Your physical reaction signals your acquaintance that you are aware you have been rude and that you did not mean to. It is an adaptive reaction since it aims to secure your relationships with others.
However, in the case of the fear of blushing, also called erythrophobia, the physical reaction has become counterproductive. The person is not ashamed of an objective violation of social norms, but of blushing itself.
Logically, this leads to a fear of blushing. Our person starts paying excessive attention to her physical reactions. “Is my face feeling hot?”, “Am I blushing right now?” – questions like these start popping up in her mind.
When her answer to these questions is yes, a negative feedback loop is set into place. A feeling of shame starts to arise, which only provides even more reason to be ashamed, and the vicious cycle is complete.
But this does not only happen in the case of blushing. Any physical symptom, such as sweating, trembling, a rapid heart beat and so on, can be reason of concern for an individual with social anxiety.
What they all have in common is that the person believes that others might reject or look down on her because of these manifestations.
When asked what these physical symptoms mean to them, affected people usually say that they are proof of their insecurity, ineptness, or inferiority. Perfectionist standards play an important role here. But even more so, the attempt of fighting these reactions.
What happens if you are afraid of being anxious in social situations? Right, you are alert to your internal state. You try to detect any sign of anxiety.
As soon as you do, you go into emergency mode. “I am anxious in a social situation, this is dangerous.” When this is the line of thinking, attempts to counteract the anxiety usually follow. These attempts, paradoxically, mostly result in an increase of anxiety.
The same thing applies to blushing, sweating, a rapid heart beat or any other bodily reaction a person tries to actively avoid and suppress.
Carl Gustav Jung famously said “What you resist, not only persists, but will grow in size”. Understanding this counterintuitive idea represents one of the main insights and steps in psychotherapy for many people with SAD.
To realize that the desperate attempts to fight the physical reactions of anxiety do not only not help, but jeopardize a person’s social performance, experience, and appearance, is key. This is especially true for those individuals who have their focus on the secondary, bodily manifestations of their social anxiety.
So how to handle physical symptoms of anxiety?
The answer might not satisfy you at first, but try contemplating it: you might not have to handle them at all. If you can’t control them, you might as well accept them.
This is easier said than done, of course. But with practice and persistence, it is certainly possible. And if you truly accept them, you might experience the collateral affect of not displaying these physical reactions at all.
So, try to allow your physical symptoms to arise and be there. By not fighting them, you won’t intensify them further and you won’t be busy fighting a war you cannot win. Instead, you can focus on the present social situation and engage in it actively.
- If you fear displaying physical symptoms of anxiety in social situations, resist the urge to fight and control them.
- When your attention in social situations is focused on your internal and bodily sensations, refocus your attention on what is happening around you, on the conversation, task etc.
- Internal statements and mantras that reassure you of your intention to accept the physical reactions of anxiety can be helpful (“I accept that my heart is racing and resist the urge to fight it”).
- Do not pursue the goal of not displaying physical symptoms in social situations – this intention will jeopardize your social experience. Instead, deliberately allow these manifestations to arise.
If you want to actively work on your intention to accept your physical anxiety symptoms, feel free to try our guided acceptance meditation specifically designed for this purpose.