Key Benefits of Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety

Even the most outgoing extroverts experience times when they feel bashful. Shyness is a normal and inevitable human emotion. Think of universal situations that take us out of our comfort zones. It might be a first date or a job interview. These days, making a phone call has become reason enough to bring out the shyness in anyone. True social anxiety, on the other hand, is a diagnosable condition that can derail daily functioning.

Shyness vs. Social Anxiety

Perhaps the most basic difference lies in duration. Shyness passes. It subsides as we grow more familiar with a given situation or person. Shyness rarely, if ever, carries over to other parts of our life. Social anxiety does not simply pass. If anything, it intensifies and it most definitely impacts all facets of our daily life.

In terms of intensity, even the most nerve-wracking public speaking obligation pales in comparison to the relentless of social anxiety. Symptoms can grow to palpably disproportionate levels. Rather than being able to laugh about it later, these symptoms feed the cycle and help social anxiety become all-encompassing.

Common Symptoms of Social Anxiety

  • Fear of strangers
  • Extreme dread at the thought of being embarrassed
  • Avoiding situations that put you as the center of attention
  • Discomfort around authority figures
  • Mind “blanks out” in social situations
  • Choosing solitude to the point of isolation
  • In more severe cases, panic attacks

This sampling does not include the physical manifestations, e.g. racing heart, stomach discomfort from nausea to pain to diarrhea, blushing, trembling, cold or sweaty hands, shaky voice and/or dry throat, and muscle tension.

Predictably, this range of uncomfortable symptoms inspires a person with social anxiety to cultivate a variety of ways to avoid bringing them on. They may:

  • Avoid eye contact
  • Not go to restaurants alone so they don’t have to order meals
  • Talk to new people
  • Enter a room in which everyone is already settled

There is a certain short-term logic to these coping mechanisms but they only serve to make things worse. Ironically, it can be helpful to purposely expose oneself to precisely those situations that have triggered us before.

Key Benefits of Exposure Therapy for Social Anxiety

Exposure therapy usually takes place within a treatment approach called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It can begin with a person role-playing with their therapist. This entry point helps gently introduce the idea of directly facing one’s worst fears.

At some point, however, it becomes necessary for the patient to try things in real life — on their own. The first step is to rank social situations or tasks on an anxiety level scale and then begin a cycle:

  1. Choose a social situation that feels difficult but inspires the least anxiety of all those on your list
  2. Stick with this task until your anxiety lessens
  3. Repeat the same task until the anxiety level virtually subsides
  4. Discuss this process with your therapist, e.g. how it did or didn’t match your expectations, what you learned, how you felt, etc.
  5. Move next to the social situation with the second-lowest anxiety level

Follow this program until you are facing up to tasks and situations that ranked highest on your anxiety level list. The goal is not to eliminate anxiety. Feeling appropriately anxious is normal and sometimes important. You just want to regain control of your life when it comes to anxiety that derails you.

Cautions

Exposure therapy works best when completed under the supervision of a trained professional. People with social anxiety create multiple methods of avoidance. Thus, it is essential that they have someone to report back to. With such guidance, the path towards sustainable recovery is much clearer.

If you need support or have additional questions, find more answers regarding anxiety treatment here. Please contact me soon for a consultation.