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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.