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How to cope with Social Anxiety: Behaviour Experiments

worried woman

In Wednesday’s post (8th January), I spoke about performance anxiety and began to put together some action steps for preventative self-help. I explained the theory behind REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) which counters the common held assumption that ‘things’ make us feel bad. REBT (a form of CBT) argues that it’s not things that make us feel bad, but the irrational beliefs we have about how things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be that make us feel bad. If we can identify our beliefs and see that they are irrational, we can amend them and begin to change how we feel about a situation.

I detailed a series of questions I ask clients which highlight the beliefs that cause their anxiety and help them to realise their beliefs are irrational. Identifying and disputing irrational beliefs and re-wording them to make them rational are the first steps in relieving future performance anxiety.

Thoughts, emotions, behaviour

Our thoughts, plus our emotions cause our behaviour

If we experience performance anxiety (or any kind of anxiety), the following sequence plays out:

You’re about to give a presentation 100 people –

Thoughts = I’m dreadful at giving presentations. I become a total mess. I’m going to look stupid and everyone will talk about me behind my back!

Emotion = Anxiety
When we feel anxious, body sensations such as shaking, sweating and blushing begin. We start to focus on these and make our anxiety worse by worrying about them. To try and relieve this added anxiety, we start to adopt ‘safety’ behaviours to mask what is happening from others. While in the short term, these safety behaviours help relieve the added anxiety, in the long term they begin to add to it.

Let me show you how this plays out with an example –

Before the presentation, you anticipated that the anxiety would make your neck flush and you would sweat more. The safety behaviour you took on to relieve your worry about this was to wear more layers of clothing to absorb the sweat and to wear your shirt buttoned up to the neck to help disguise the flushing. However, during the presentation you feel hot from the extra layers of clothing and feel like your flushing is even more obvious; in the long term, your safety behaviour in maintaining your anxiety, not relieving it.
Another scenario might be that your hands start to shake during the presentation and you try to hide them as much as possible. You avoid picking up your notes or drinking any water. However your mouth begins to dry out and your become focussed on the discomfort.

Changing your behaviour, changes your thoughts and emotions

In REBT, the idea is that we can try to change our emotions by changing our thoughts first (as described in Wednesday’s post) however for some of us, changing just our thoughts is sometimes not enough to change how we feel. In this case, if we can change our behaviour, we can think differently and therefore feel differently.

Behaviour experiments

When we experience anxiety, we make predictions about things that ‘might’ happen or how we ‘might’ feel in a particular situation. When you take part in a behaviour experiment for anxiety, you put yourself in a situation where you know you will feel anxious and you purposefully ‘drop’ your safety behaviours (as they only serve to maintain anxiety in the long run). The idea is that before you go ahead and put yourself in the situation, you list what ‘safety’ behaviours you are likely to adopt how you think you will feel in the situation if you stopped yourself from using them. The next step is to go ahead and do the activity (without the behaviours) and assess afterwards how you felt; were the outcomes as negative as you had predicted?

The purpose of this is not to throw yourself in at the deep-end. Your first experiment should make you feel uncomfortable but not panic-stricken and put off.  You should aim to move further out of your comfort zone with each activity. You can begin by writing a list of activities you can do that will make you feel anxious and grade them from 1-10. Start at 1 and work your way up to 10 as you begin to realise your negative predictions are not coming true.

If you can get feedback from others, then make sure you do.  Did they see your hands shaking? What were their thoughts when/if they did? Try to get feedback from a mix of people, not just your friends.

Before you do the experiment, you may need to return to the questioning process I went through on Wednesday’s post to help recognise any irrational beliefs you hold over your safety behaviours to diminish them first.

I’ve attached a behaviour experiment record sheet, with an example to show you what to do (from http://www.psychologytools.org/).

Behavioural_Experiment

Lizzie Velasquez: so inspiring!

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I wasn’t going to write a post tonight but after seeing Lizzie’s video which was tweeted by a friend of mine, I had to share it.  I hadn’t heard of her before today but I was so moved by the strength of her resilience.  She has such an important lesson to teach us about overcoming adversity and the choices you must make in the face of it.  Enjoy…

 

You can visit Lizzie’s website at http://www.aboutlizzie.com/


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How to cope with Social Anxiety: Irrational Beliefs

The anxiety that accompanies public speaking has probably affected most of us at some point in our lives.  Even those of us who are normally very confident in most social situations can find ourselves with sweaty palms, shaking hands and a racing heart when we are standing in front of an audience and presenting.  Take for example Michael Bay, director of the Transformers films, whom Samsung employed to reveal their latest television to a crowd of hundreds in Las Vegas this week.  Not long into his speech, the teleprompter that Bay was reading from malfunctioned.  Bay froze, became embarrassed and walked off the stage.  For most of us, having our minds freeze in the middle of a presentation is our worst nightmare; the prediction of it happening before we’ve even began is enough to give us palpitations.

This kind of anxiety is called performance anxiety and when we experience it, we often make negative predictions about what may go wrong and what people will think of us before then event has happened. The most absurd and frustrating thing for those of us who experience performance anxiety is that our predictions never come true; we put ourselves though all that suffering for nothing.  Even though we’ve spoken time and time again in public and nothing untoward has happened, we still continue to disturb ourselves the next time we do it.

There is plenty of advice on the internet about how to cope with public speaking, but much of it assumes that reading the advice alone is enough to quell your fears and much of it talks about how to cope in the moment rather than what you can do in advance.  I have recently read an article that advises to focus your thoughts on the fact that you are helping your audience and to stop focussing on your own fear.  I don’t know about you but I feel this is easier said than done.  When I work with people to address their performance anxiety, I use a process that was designed for use in REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy – a form of CBT) that uncovers and disputes irrational thoughts in order to weaken them.

Similarly to CBT, the theory behind REBT is that it’s not ‘things’ that make us feel bad, but the irrational beliefs we have about how things ‘should’ or ‘must’ be that make us feel bad.  If we can identify our beliefs and see that they are irrational, we can amend them and begin to change how we feel about a situation.

REBT identifies four beliefs that make us feel negative emotions and these are:

  • Demands: we demand or insist that something ‘should’ or ’must’ be a certain way.
  • Awfulisation: we believe that a situation is so bad that we just can’t cope with it.
  • Low Frustration Tolerance (LFT): we believe that we ‘should’ or ‘must’ always feel comfortable.
  • Depreciation: we believe that we or another is not behaving as they ‘should’ or ‘must’.

These beliefs are considered irrational because they are:

  • Inflexible (all or nothing thinking)
  • Unrealistic
  • Illogical
  • Unhelpful in goal achievement

Let me give you an example in the context of public speaking to demonstrate how I use REBT:

My boss asks me to give a presentation to an audience of 100 that comprises of people from my office and regional offices.  The request itself is enough for me to feel anxious as I immediately begin to imagine members of the audience whisper about me as they see my hands shaking.  They’re questioning my competence.  I imagine my throat drying out as I avoid drinking any water (I don’t want to show the audience my hands) and I start coughing.  I go red and feel humiliated.

As you can see, it’s not the presentation that makes me feel anxious but all the negative predictions I make before I’ve even written it.  When I help clients address their performance anxiety, the first thing I need to do is find out what prediction is making them feel the most anxious.  We then write the prediction down and see which of the above REBT beliefs the prediction is reflecting.

Let’s take the prediction, ‘if I shake, everyone watching will think I’m incompetent’ as an example of the most anxiety inducing thought in this instance.

A demanding belief could be:

‘I must never show weakness in front of others’.

An awfulising belief could be:

‘I couldn’t cope if I looked weak in front of my boss’

A LFT belief could be:

‘I must always feel calm and composed’

A depreciation belief could be:

‘I will looked stupid and incapable if I show I’m nervous’

Once we have identified the beliefs that cause the feeling of anxiety when thinking about shaking, I dispute the beliefs with my client.  By this I am trying to help them see that their belief are irrational and serve them no purpose.

REBT uses three main lines of disputing.  It asks:

  • Is your belief realistic?
  • Is your belief logical?
  • Does your belief help you achieve anything?

Let’s take ‘I must never show weakness in front of others’ as an example to demonstrate the disputing process.  First of all I will question the client about how realistic this belief is:

What evidence do you have that proves you must never show weakness in front of others?

  • What law of nature enforces the fact that you must never show weakness in front of others?
  • Do you believe that any great leader has never shown weakness?
  • With this in mind, how realistic is it that you must never show weakness in front of others?

Next I will question the client about how logical their belief is:

  • Does is make sense that because your anxious and shaking, that everyone in the audience will all come to the conclusion that you are weak?
  • What alternative thoughts could the audience be thinking?
  • What would you be thinking about someone who was shaking while giving a presentation?
  • With this in mind, how logical is it that you must never show weakness in front of others?

Finally I will question the client about how far holding this belief helps them achieve their outcome?

  •  When you think to yourself that you must never show weakness, how does this help you prepare emotionally for the presentation?
  • When you think this, how is it helping you focus when writing your presentation?
  • When you think this, how is it improving your ability to give presentations in the future?
  • With this in mind, how helpful to you is it to believe you must never show weakness in front other others?

I repeat this process with each of my client’s beliefs.  By the end of the process, the client usually as a good intellectual understanding that their beliefs are not rational, which has the affect of weakening them.

After this, I ask my client to re-write their beliefs based on the answers they gave me, which may end up reading something like this:

‘I would prefer it if I didn’t shake when giving a presentation, but it does not mean that I am weak.  It is more likely that the audience sympathise because they’ve experience it themselves’.

You must bear in mind that this a process that intends to bring about sustainable change in your thinking.  It’s not a quick fix.  You need to practice identifying and disputing your irrational thoughts and repeating your new beliefs like a mantra.  Even though most clients have a good intellectual understanding that their thinking is irrational, some client’s aren’t able to ‘feel’ their new belief and need ongoing intervention such as completing ‘behavioural experiments’ in order to help them feel more emotionally convinced of their new belief.

I will talk about behavioural experiments in more detail about in my next post.