Is It Normal to Be Nervous in Social Settings?
The short answer: Yes! It is actually healthy for you to be a little on edge in social situations. From an evolutionary standpoint, an increase of alertness and self monitoring helped our ancestors decide who to trust and who to run from to stay alive. Just like our ancestors, some nervousness helps motivate us to be observant of other people’s body language and tone to scan for potential threat so that we can act accordingly. This process does not present as an issue until it starts affect your ability to enjoy social interactions and effectively communicate with others.
Typically, someone suffering from a social anxiety disorder practices anticipatory processing and post-event processing. This means that they are anxious and thinking about all possible situations before the event, and then they spend hours anxiously going over each interaction from the event to look for social mistakes they may have made.
When Social Processing Leads Your Astray
Anticipatory processing includes making negative predictions about what the upcoming experience will be like, and post event processing includes reviewing the social event in excruciating detail to hopefully be better prepared for future events. All this processing can make socializing an exhausting experience and it’s no wonder why someone would rather stay at home than going to a function!
Some of my clients have wondered, what’s so wrong about thinking about what might happen and trying to prepare for it?
And the answer is: there’s nothing wrong with that!
The problem arises when that thinking becomes obsessive and also carries negative beliefs about one’s self. Those underlying beliefs of “I’m a failure, I’m different, or I’m incompetent” lead one to feel overwhelmed by anxiety. If you go into a social situation telling yourself that you’re not supposed to be nervous while holding excessively high standards for your performance, you can easily get distracted from the conversation and this may end up confirming your belief that you’re incompetent. This strengthens the idea that you are socially defective and, ultimately, makes it even more difficult to be vulnerable enough to socialize again.
How Other People Impact Our Social Anxieties
Someone can also hold underlying negative beliefs about other people that influences their social anxiety. In essence, they fear that if others evaluate them negatively, their impression of them will be global and everlasting.
For example, if you’re giving a speech and notice that there is someone in the back of the room that leaves when you’re talking, you might think that they thought you were boring. Suddenly, your anxiety spikes because that person leaving must mean that others are bored by you now too.
If you find yourself either over-processing before or after an event, you can begin evaluating thoughts and beliefs during that processing. For example, ask yourself the following questions:
• “What’s the evidence for and against this thought?”
• “What the effect of believing this?”
• “What could be the effect if I changed my thinking?”
• “What’s the best that could happen?”
• “What’s realistic to happen?”
After you’ve spent some time evaluating and restructuring your thoughts surrounding your pre and post processing, practice focusing your attention on something external during social situations. This will help you learn how to accept and let go of controlling the situation.
For example, if you start to get nervous and realize that your heart rate is elevated, you will likely start to hyper focus on your heart rate and have a difficult time remembering your helpful thoughts. So, that would be a good time to zoom in on what the person you’re talking to looks like and is saying. For example, try to notice what the person is wearing, or you can purposefully look at the person’s lips and repeat what they are saying in your head. When you recognize those types of details, your attention goes back to your internal experience, go right back to what they are saying or what you’re seeing.
Again, some anxiety in social settings is normal and useful! However, if you find yourself dreading social interactions, it would be helpful to spend some time unpacking what you’re actually thinking of before and after events. Are you pre-occupied with what people may be thinking of you? Are you concerned about how you might come across? Evaluate these thoughts and work through modifying your beliefs to be adaptive and helpful.
The first step to creating a change in how you feel in social settings is increasing your awareness! If you’re struggling with identifying your beliefs and how they impact your social performance, or if you’re experiencing a deficit in social skills, it’s best to reach out to a professional to help support you through the process.