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You Can Run but You Can’t Hide… How to Break the Cycle of Social Anxiety

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While our natural impulse is to avoid situations that provoke anxiety, this only serves to consolidate fears and reduces our ability to handle social situations in the future.

You feel anxiety in some situation… you evaluate what caused you to feel anxious and you avoid that situation in the future as a way to avoid re-experiencing the anxiety.

It’s a logical response to a negative sensation, but unfortunately, avoidance as a strategy for minimizing anxiety doesn’t work very well, in fact, it generally just makes things worse.

Here’s why:

Say you experience anxiety at the thought of going to a party alone and so you either don’t go or you go but only after convincing a friend to come with you.

By avoiding or minimizing the source of your anxiety you feel short term relief from not facing the anxiety provoking situation. However, by not meeting the challenge of going to the party alone you lose the opportunity to disprove your anxieties.

If you had went and faced your fear you might have ended up having a great conversation with someone or otherwise having a great time. This positive experience would have lessened your anxiety at the thought of future parties. It is very unlikely that the experience of going to the party would be as bad as you imagine it would be in panicky thoughts of anxiety.

And so the next time you are invited to a party alone you are even more anxious and less confident about your ability to handle the situation, and so even more likely once again to avoid putting yourself in the situation.

This is the negative cycle of anxiety.

Breaking the Negative Cycle of Anxiety

The best way to break out of the negative cycle is to reverse it with a positive cycle.

If you fear parties or social gatherings, you would gradually increase your exposure to these situations as a way to build your confidence. For example:

  • Start off by going to a bar or a café with a friend and staying for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then an hour…
  • Then try going to that same safe or bar and alone and staying for 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then an hour
  • Then try going to a café or bar with a group of friends and staying for 20 minutes…

As you challenge yourself with increasingly difficult but always manageable tasks you increase your confidence in your abilities to handle social situations and you lessen your anxiety at the thought of social tasks.1

Don’t Suffer with Social Anxiety 

Don’t suffer through social anxiety and don’t let your anxieties limit what you can achieve and experience. If you aren’t able to break the negative cycle of social anxiety on your own, talk to a counselor or therapist about exposure therapy and other therapies that can help break the back of social anxiety.

You will likely also benefit from learning relaxation and breathing exercises that can be used to increase your tolerance to sensations of anxiety and from thinking modification exercises that can help you to correct unhelpful and inaccurate thinking.

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Page last updated 08/12/2015

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