I get so many messages from people telling me they have social anxiety. And you know what my response is? You are not alone, my friend!
We all suffer from some type of social anxiety. Social anxiety can look like the fear of public speaking, nervousness in face-to-face meetings, fear of talking on the phone, zoom fright (I made the last one up, but virtual interactions can be scary too, right?).
In these scenarios, your hands might shake, your voice might tremble, you might blurt out something non-sensical, or you might just freeze.
Raise your hand if any of this sounds familiar to you…yeah.
In this lesson, I’m teaching you how to conquer social anxiety, one step at a time.
We’re going to use Behavioral Activation Therapy to help us do that.
Let’s get into it.
One way to conquer social anxiety is through Behavioral Activation Therapy.
In a nutshell, Behavioral Activation therapy or BAT, is doing something that makes us happy. But the primary emphasis here is on the “doing” part.
Think back to a time when you might have skipped something because you weren’t in the mood for it in the moment. Even though you know that doing the activity is good for you and makes you happy.
This could be skipping your workout because you “just weren’t feeling it” or ditching an outing with friends to binge-watch Netflix with a bowl of popcorn.
In both of those scenarios, we were probably better off sticking to the original plan, even though we lacked the intrinsic motivation.
But hey, welcome to being human.
We’re not always in the mood for things that are good for us or align with our long-term goals and life-long values.
That fact is precisely why, when we’re having a rough time, we need to first act, then feel. Do the things you KNOW are good for you and make you happy, and in short order, you will start to feel happy.
The key here is to not wait until you feel ready. That “ready” feeling will almost certainly come too late, or not at all. And by the time you do feel ready, the window of opportunity has passed.
So this is BAT in a nutshell. You’ve probably heard of a similar approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. You can think of BAT as a complement to CBT, which is one of the most battle-tested systems out there for remedying mental health challenges.
Still have your doubts? Well, in the book “Behavioral Activation for Depression: A Clinician's Guide”, the authors demonstrate how BAT is on par with traditional pharmacology, minus the pills.
[Graphic as you read the paragraph above] “The acute outcomes of patients who received BA were comparable to those who received antidepressant medication, even among more severely depressed patients. Patients assigned to BAT tended to stay in treatment longer than those assigned to pharmacotherapy.”
So BAT is the real deal.
And I’m going to teach you how to apply it to social anxiety.
The first tenet of BAT is based on the idea that “the key to changing how people feel is helping them change what they do.” The authors refer to this principle as thinking “outside-in.”
Eric Barker, a prolific personal development blogger, describes this as “doing happy to feel happy”. But he cautions against the oversimplification of this concept by “just doing fun stuff.” Keep in mind that this isn’t about instant gratification or engaging in social behaviors that are ultimately detrimental to our goals or our health (eh-hem junk food and doom scrolling).
We need to engage in meaningful activities that increase beneficial behaviors and are good for us (our goals, our health, etc). Eric Barker calls these “Activities that produce emotional compound interest in life.”
I love that. Emotional compound interest. The more you generate, the more it compounds.
Think about that in the context of your social anxieties.
We know that social connection helps us live longer and better lives. That’s a fact. There’s tons of research that supports this.
So social anxiety is something that we need to overcome for our health and happiness.
But we won’t get the therapeutic benefits we’re looking for if we go with the instant-gratification types of “social” activities. Social media doesn’t cut it.
BAT is also not about avoidance or escape behaviors. Remember, superheroes don’t run away from the monster. They run toward it and impale it with their sword.
That’s what we need to do with our social anxieties. You are the superhero, and it’s time for you to take action.
So what are we supposed to do?
Engage in social interactions that produce a sense of reward and accomplishment.
Hang out with people who make you feel good about yourself and whom you can engage with authentically.
Additionally, engage in social activities that challenge you and push your limits of what’s comfortable.
The goal here is for our brain to associate social interactions with the feeling of being rewarded. We can do that through a healthy blend of interactions that are squarely in our comfort zone, and those that force us to step outside our comfort zone to develop more robust social skills.
When choosing the balance between these two, I like Eric Barker’s approach: “let pleasure and mastery guide you.”
We derive lasting pleasure from net-positive activities, where, hours or days later, we’re glad we did them. Contrast this with instant gratification activities, where the sense of pleasure is quickly replaced by regret, leading to a net negative.
And when it comes to mastery, don’t think of mastery as becoming an actual master. A master chef, a master public speaker, a master tea maker…there’s no need to put that kind of pressure on yourself.
Mastery instead looks like setting a goal for yourself, which is aligned with your values, and then approaching it in bite-sized increments. You see the top of the mountain, you know you want to summit it, so you plan out the steps that get you there. During the planning, and the doing, you will derive lasting feelings of accomplishment having done hard work.
To make this less abstract, let’s do an exercise:
Step one is to figure out what interactions bring you pleasure.
Think about the types of social interactions you do, and with whom you do them, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most empowering. Rely on the activities that yield a high score and from which you derive the most pleasure.
Social interactions that yield a low score might be indicative of room for improvement. Do phone calls rank low? What about online interviewing? If they are important to you (communicating with Grandma who only uses a phone), you do them frequently (zoom calls), or they are important for your long-term happiness (getting a job via online interviewing), then turn that into a goal.
Once you’ve done that, it’s on to step two.
This is where we plan the journey of bite-sized steps we discussed above. You know where you’re going, so now you need to figure out what milestones mark your progress.
It can help to put together a handwritten timeline with actual dates for when you plan to accomplish those specific milestones. You want something that you can use to track your progress and demonstrate your hard work.
This reinforces that sense of accomplishment, and that’s the ultimate goal here.
Phew, that was a big one. Let’s quickly recap:
If a kaleidoscope of anxious thoughts take root in your mind during social interaction – virtual or IRL – then it might be time to use BAT.
The key with BAT is to first act, then feel. Not the other way around. Don’t wait until you are ready. Just choose an activity that you know has a net-positive effect on your mood and start doing it. Even if you’re not feeling quite up to it yet.
So when it comes to social interactions, figure out which ones empower you or leave a lasting sense of comfort and gratitude.
Make these your go-to activities when you start to feel that social anxiety creeping in. They will serve as positive reinforcement and give you momentum and the confidence that you can transfer to situations you feel less sure about.
In Eric Barker’s words “naturally reinforcing behaviors…keep [us] on the right track”.
So now that I've shared our thoughts, I’d love to hear how you like to build rapport. What works for you? What challenges have you encountered? How have you been rewarded for your efforts?
Share that with me and the Explearning community in the comments down below.
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With that, have an awesome week, Explearners.
Thank you so much for joining me and I’ll see you next time for your next Explearning lesson.
⚡Happy Explearning ⚡