Social Anxiety


Many of us commonly experience varying degrees of anxiety in social situations. The cause of social anxiety varies from person to person, for instance, someone experiencing social anxiety may be worrying that others will be criticising and judging their choice of outfit, whereas another person may concerned that others will judge their contribution to the conversation or that no one will laugh at their jokes! Whatever it is that is the main concern driving the anxiety, the effect of anxious thoughts is fairly universal.

At any moment in time, there are multitudes of things that you could be focusing your attention on. It might be the person talking to you, the sounds you can hear around you, the smells in the environment, all of the different things to look at, or the internal monologue of thoughts that are always running through your head.

In social situations, when you’re feeling anxious and worried, your thoughts tend to switch from being outwardly focused, for instance, on the conversation your friends are having, to being inwardly focused on your own concerns and worries – that internal monologue. As a result you spend a lot of time and use most of your brains resources thinking and generating anxious thoughts and much less time paying attention to the world around you. This will impact your ability to engage in social situations by making it harder to listen to others and remember details of conversations. It may even contribute to anxiety in the future, if this inability to follow the conversation fully results in you being embarrassed when asked to contribute!

To tackle this problem, it can be useful to practice the skill of focusing your attention outwardly. By doing this you can train your brain to be directed to attend to specific things (sounds, smells, sights, etc.) other than your own thoughts. This will help you to fully engage in your experiences, particularly those that are social, rather than being stuck in your own head!

Practice this a few times per week:

  • Pick 5 persistent sounds you can hear (this works well if you’re in a noisy area, if not, there are a number of free sound apps for smartphones that allow you to layer multiple sounds – try searching the app store for a relax sounds app).
  • Every minute, focus all your attention on just one of those sounds. This might be hard at first, but just do your best to concentrate on that one sound, switching to a different one at the end of a minute.
  • Focus your attention on each sound twice, so all up the exercise should take you approximately 10 minutes.

It might be hard to focus your attention to just one of the sounds, particularly if a competing sound is louder or more intrusive. This is completely natural, don’t let it worry you – every time your attention is drawn away from the sound you’re trying to attend to, notice it and draw your attention back. You might notice that the more you practice the better you are able to focus your attention.

Next time you’re in an anxiety provoking social situation, you can use your skills to help you focus your attention away from your worried thoughts and out into the experience.