Living with social anxiety you quickly learn that there are both good days and bad days.
One weekend I can be hanging out with friends at a provincial park and the next weekend I’ll be too afraid to leave my apartment. I’ll find myself listening with my ear to the door to make sure that no one is in the hallway before going out to make a pizza run.
I’ve been struggling with social anxiety for many years and even though I feel like I’ve progressed quite far and have my anxiety under control I still have the bad days.
I don’t think anyone is ever completely cured of their social anxiety. We just learn to manage it.
One of the key things you need to know when you’re managing your social anxiety is how to tell when your anxiety is getting worse so that you can take immediate action to reduce it.
You can learn all the anti-anxiety techniques in the world but if you don’t know when to use them they’re useless.
Some signs are more obvious than others. But the signs are always there.
Warning Sign #1: Increased Avoidance Of Social Situations
Let’s get this obvious warning sign out of the way at the start.
When you begin to feel more anxiety around people and social situations the first reaction is going to be avoidance. You’ll simply shut yourself away from what provokes your anxiety.
The easiest way to decrease anxiety is just to get ourselves as far away from the cause as possible. If the cause is a certain class or group of friends then we begin to avoid them more often and make excuses to not go.
My social anxiety used to get so bad that I would wait until midnight to go to the all-night grocery store just so that I could avoid having to walk past people on the sidewalk. Your anxiety is probably not as severe but the same principles apply.
How I Use Avoidance As a “Canary”
Do you know what the phrase “canary in a coal mine” means?
It refers to an old practice of miners where they would carry small birds called canaries with them when entering mines. If there were dangerous invisible and odourless gases in the mine that could be fatal the gases would kill the canary first (since their bodies were smaller) and the miners would know to get out.
I have a metaphorical “canary” to alert me when my anxiety is increasing again so that I know when to use anti-anxiety techniques.
Every week I have a certain collection of social things that I do. I do them every week no matter what.
These are simple things like calling a friend, or having some smalltalk with a neighbour. They also include more complex things like forcing myself to approach at least one woman every week (in a place like a store or mall), and make a joke to a complete stranger at least once a week.
The specifics of what I do don’t matter. What matters is that if one week I feel completely unable to do one of these tasks then I immediately know that my anxiety is increasing and that I need to find healthy ways to lower it.
In this case my desire to avoid one of these “must-do” items on my weekly list is my canary. My warning.
Warning Sign #2: Increased Negative Opinion of Myself
One of the most important lessons I learned when I first started learning about social anxiety is this:
“People with social anxiety don’t feel anxiety because of social situations, but because of their interpretations of those social situations.”
What this means is that you feel anxiety based on how you feel your performance will be in a social situation.
If your opinion of how you will perform decreases then your anxiety will increase as you imagine the increased negative judgement your poor performance will surely attract.
Look for these thoughts running around your head next time you feel anxiety:
- No one likes me.
- People think I’m unintelligent.
- People don’t think I’m interesting enough to have a conversation with.
Whenever I used to get these thoughts I believed them and assumed they represented factual reality. But today I know better.
People with social anxiety see themselves more negatively than other people. They are more likely to engage in negative thinking about themselves. And this negative thinking increases their anxiety.
When you experience a decreased opinion of yourself it probably indicates that your anxiety is increasing and you should begin anxiety reducing techniques.
Warning Sign #3: Increased Negative Opinions About The World
Do you ever get completely cynical about the world and other people? Do you ever think that people are just rotten and can’t be trusted? Or what the world is materialistic and shallow and not worth it?
People who suffer from social anxiety commonly experience these negative thoughts.
But it is important to remember: our perception of the world isn’t always based on reality.
When we enter a particularly anxious phase we begin to think more poorly of the world. We tend to believe that other people are rotten or spiteful or even evil. The world looks like a dark and dangerous place.
Now imagine if you are already prone to social anxiety in even friendly social situations. How will this new dark vision of the world interact with your social anxiety? Will it reduce it or increase it?
I noticed that in my life I tend to prefer different political parties and systems depending on how I feel. It’s embarrassing to share this because we’re all supposed to take political stances that are based on reason and facts.
But I truly do go between a bright and positive vision of the future where everyone cooperates and helps each other to a cold and dark vision where society is just a bunch of individuals out for their own self-interest and willing to do whatever they want to get it.
A little while ago I recognized that these shifts in opinions about how the world works is linked with the current level of social anxiety that I had. When I have more the world appears hopelessly dark and selfish, when I have less the world looks bright and I feel kinship with all humankind.
How about you? Do you notice that your opinion of the “goodness” of the world and other people changes sometimes? Do these changes correlate with the level of anxiety you’re feeling at a particular moment?
I bet that if you kept a journal and tracked your anxiety and your moment-to-moment beliefs about the world you would find a clear connection.
So next time the world seems like a horrible place filled with nothing but suffering and selfish people take a step back and ask yourself if that’s really what you think. Is that opinion based on all the people you’ve ever met and read about or is it just a temporary negative thought linked to increased anxiety?
I hope that this article helps you identify the warning signs when you suspect that your anxiety is getting worse in the future.