Kick Social Anxiety to the Curb – 5 Strategies for Students (Social Anxiety in the Classroom: Part 3)
In the previous two posts in the Social Anxiety in the Classroom series, we discussed the differences between shyness, introversion, social anxiety, and social anxiety disorder, and I shared my personal journey with the aforementioned. Today we’ll explore some of the exercises I’ve found helpful to start reducing the negative impact of social anxiety. I’ll show you a very candid example of how I worked through each exercise in the past so that you can follow along more easily!
Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist or other mental health professional. These are simply exercises that have been recommended to me by my mental health professionals and may be helpful for others (but not everyone). I am disseminating these exercises with the belief that everyone should have easy access to resources on improving mental health.
So let’s dive right in!
Photo by Johnson Wang
This post contains affiliate links. Read my full disclosure here.
Many of these exercises begin outside of class because I believe in the preventative model over the treatment model. We should take proactive steps before being exposed to triggers as much as possible as opposed to reactive steps after we are already in panic mode.
1. Conduct personal experiments – turn the “what if” into “what is”
One big annoying feature of intense anxiety is its ability to make us think about a million different “what if” scenarios before being exposed to a situation that is making us anxious. For me, every time I would like to make a verbal contribution in class, I have to overcome around (ballparking here) 32 different “what if”s.
They try to convince me that if I start speaking, everyone will judge and scrutinize my every word (cognitive distortion: mind reading). That if I stutter or make any mistakes in my speech, I will be regarded as someone who does not know what they are talking about (again, mind reading). That if I start talking, I won’t be able to continue my train of thought; that it will end in a rambling slurry mess (fortune telling). There’s a common theme here. All of these “what if” scenarios are assumptions. And making these wild assumptions, my friends, is the crux of our problems with avoidance.
How do we kick this in the bud? Well, we need to actively test our assumptions. Drs. Greenberger & Padesky (2016) share a method in their book, “Mind Over Mood” to do just that.
First, you will need to find an assumption that you are making, and that you would like to test.
An assumption? … I guess I assume that I won’t be able to continue my train of thought once I start speaking and that I will make a fool of myself.
Next, form an experiment to test that assumption.
GAHH I don’t know – it’s giving me a lot of anxiety thinking about talking in the bigger class, but sometimes we break off into smaller groups. Maybe I can try something there? I can try to give my opinion on someone else’s question.
Make predictions about what might happen.
I’ll give my opinion, and someone will laugh. Or I’ll talk, and everyone will look surprised that I actually talk. Or I’ll speak and then I’ll suffer a severe voice crack and I’ll start blushing madly or hyperventilating or all of the above.
Predict some possible problems with executing this experiment.
Becoming overwhelmed in the moment. It’s always easier said than done with these experiments. I might chicken out.
How might you overcome these problems?
Something that works for me in most scenarios is counting down from 5 (thanks Mel Robbins!) and then just doing it. The idea is that you remove the “what if”s from your mind by focusing on counting down, and then you put your focus on implementing an action you want to take right after the countdown. Avoiding is easier, but it won’t help with trying to overcome my anxiety.
What’s the outcome of your experiment?
Actually………I was able to continue my train of thought. In fact, I continued my train of thought so well that I started feeling like others should get a chance to speak. It was odd. I couldn’t believe it just happened. I did feel some initial anxiety symptoms (heart beating faster, some shaking), but it soon subsided after I saw the warm and open smiles on my peers’ faces.
What have you learned from the experiment about your assumption?
I am capable of expressing my ideas in class. Also, my peers did not actually give off any vibes that they were looking down on me or that they were surprised that I talk. These are all assumptions that I made in my head that are not true.
What is an alternative assumption that fits with the outcome(s) of your experiment(s)?
I can continue my train of thought once I begin, and I think I can trust that my peers will treat me with respect even if I slip up a little.
This first exercise was just to get our feet wet in the situations that give us social anxiety and realize that what we consider to be threats are not always actually there. That was an example of an exposure-based psychological strategy, which aims to reduce social anxiety through repeated exposures to the anxiety-provoking situation. So, realistically, the above experimental process would be repeated many many times in order to reduce the anxiety associated with it.
I’ve found that most self-help workbooks I’ve found on combating anxiety do not begin with an actionable step like this. However, I think that for those with less intense bouts of social anxiety, you may find it beneficial to start off with something with which you can see results.
For those like myself who struggle with social anxiety disorder (again, you can see the differences in this post), you may want more preliminary exercises before taking action. This is completely okay, and in fact it is recommended! Understanding how come you have these ineffective automatic thoughts before taking action to reroute your mind is a good path to take. And hey, even if you do not experience severe social anxiety, it does not make you more or less of anything to want to try these first as well.
2. Identify your cognitive distortions – the different types of anxious thinking that are ineffective (and inaccurate!)
In “The Shyness & Social Anxiety Workbook”, Drs. Antony & Swinson (2017) describe a cognitive strategy as those that aid you in identifying your anxiety-provoking thoughts and replacing them with more realistic thoughts. Realistic. Remember, the aim of cognitive behavioural therapy is not to replace your negative automatic thoughts with positive thoughts, but with realistic thoughts. I know myself and many others who are irked by sentiments such as, “Don’t worry, be happy!” If only it were that simple, eh?
To get a primer on cognitive distortions for students, check out the posts I’ve written on identifying and challenging them. Understanding and recognizing these cognitive distortions is often a difficult step on its own, but it is imperative in order to know what exactly you are trying to overcome. We are overcoming social anxiety, but what in particular are we overcoming? This is what we seek to answer.
For myself, I’ve already sporadically labelled my cognitively distorted thoughts throughout this post. Here are some common ones I have, and how I try to reframe these thoughts when I recognize them (notice, self-validate, then challenge):
If I make any mistakes while I speak, then I am a complete failure.
It is typical to be nervous when speaking in front of a large group. It’s okay to feel nervous. May I remember that people make mistakes all the time, and that it is not realistic to expect myself to never make any mistakes in front of others. It is possible to make a mistake while I speak and still be successful.
Disqualifying the positive:
My professor complimented me the other day about a contribution I made, but he was just pitying me. There’s no way I was actually useful.
I know that a core belief of mine that I struggle with is that I am fundamentally less experienced and knowledgeable than my peers because I cancelled a semester to work on my mental health. This is understandable, and it is okay. However, the contribution I made during class was one that only I could have made, because of the experiences I’ve had during that semester outside of the academic world. Yes, my peers may have some more experience in courses I was unable to take, but this does not mean that I cannot contribute in my own unique way.
There! I just spoke and no one built on from my point. That proves I’m not capable of contributing anything useful in class.
I’m clearly feeling some frustration right now, and that’s okay. I know my core belief that I am unskilled at communicating my ideas. I think about it constantly, so it makes sense that I jump to the thought that I am not capable of being a helpful contributor in my classes. However, that’s a filter that I place on myself. When others’ points are dropped in this way, I give them every other reason how come it may have happened other than their own ineptitude.
Identification of these cognitive distortions in our everyday thinking is an effective starting point to change the way we think. This will require practice, but building the skill of catching yourself when your thoughts are cognitively distorted is extremely valuable! You have to know what the problem is specifically before you can solve it.
It’s like if you were trying to fix your computer. If you had no idea where the problem was, you may do things like hit your computer (I’ve seen this), turn the computer on and off repeatedly to no avail (I’ve been told by others to do this), and sit in the corner for 30 minutes blankly despairing over how much you rely on technology (I’ve done this). On the other hand, if you take time to understand your computer or to research on how to solve the specific problem that you are having, you will find much more success. Plus, in future similar situations, you will know what to do!
3. Create an exposure ladder or exposure hierarchy to work up to your goals for yourself in social situations.
A common practice for many individuals facing intense anxiety, be it social or otherwise, is building an exposure ladder (or exposure hierarchy). I spoke about this in another post, but it is worth revisiting with a social anxiety in the classroom lens.
An exposure ladder is a step-by-step (or rung-by-rung) roadmap to fostering personal agency and a sense of capability in anxiety-provoking social situations. As discussed by Dr. Bourne in “The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook” (2015), these exposure hierarchies can be divided into two stages: coping and full exposure. Coping exposures will involve using supports, whether this be a support person, a support animal, rehearsing positive coping statements, or deep abdominal breathing.
As you move further up the exposure hierarchy, you will begin to practice handling the situation without such supports. It means the difference between only feeling able to handle certain social situations under specific circumstances and being able to realize that you can do it under any circumstances. Full exposure involves mastery of your previously anxiety-provoking situation. For example, instead of your end goal capabilities being conditional on when you are with someone else or if you took time to practice relaxation breathing beforehand, your end goal will be doing whatever gives you social anxiety by yourself and without needing a prolonged period of time to breathe. Doesn’t that sound incredible? It’ll be difficult, but it will be worth it!
Think about how come you want to overcome your social anxiety. What are your goals of actions you would like to be able to accomplish?
Here are some of my previous examples:
- I want to be able to speak freely in the larger class, including asking questions, contributing opinions and ideas, and providing constructive counterpoints when I disagree.
- I want to be able to reach out to my professor to discuss professional opportunities.
- I want to be able to be open and candid about my experiences with mental health to help as many individuals as possible.
- I want to be able to take walks outside without worrying about running into someone I know and having an awkward conversation because I have nothing to say.
What is one goal you would like to focus on?
Let’s take the first for the sake of this article because it is most related to the classroom. An example of an exposure ladder, starting with least anxiety-provoking to most anxiety-provoking would look something like the following: (where my ‘support’ is counting down from 5 before speaking and also being part of a smaller group)
- Give an opinion in a small 4-5 person group that is not likely to cause controversy.
- Ask a question for clarification in a small 4-5 person group when they discuss something that occurred in class when I was not present.
- In a small 4-5 person group, add onto someone else’s thought and express agreement for certain aspects of their opinion, and then share an alternative thought.
- In the larger class, give a simple “I agree” statement to someone else’s suggestion.
- In the larger class, share an opinion during discussion that is backed by my own experiences and/or evidence in the news or in literature.
- In the larger class, ask a question for clarification.
- In the larger class, add onto someone else’s thought and express agreement for certain aspects of their opinion, and then share an alternative thought.
- In the larger class, try to go with the flow and weave in these three elements wherever I see fit.
The idea is that you would remain on each rung for as many times as you need, repeating the exposure on that rung until you feel reduced social anxiety in response to it. Then, you move up another rung. You can restructure and revamp your ladder as you go along. Of course, it is not that you cannot continue the exposures on prior rungs as you move up. It is just that your primary focus will shift to your next exposure. Make sure to give yourself rewards for every small achievement! Even if you make a tiny improvement each time you repeat an exposure, you’re a boss. Treat yourself like one!
4. Use thought records to rewire the way your brain processes highly emotional or distressing situations.
In “Mind Over Mood“, Drs. Greenberger & Padesky (2016) explain that thought records are designed to help you to replace your ineffective automatic thoughts with positive alternative thoughts. Sounds familiar right? But unlike the first exercise, thought records are done after you experience a situation where you felt affected by a high amount of social anxiety (or really, any large emotion).
It targets our tendency to ruminate on our past experiences with social anxiety in an ineffective and unrealistic manner. Again, we aim to create realistic alternative thoughts, but here, the positivity comes with how you speak to yourself. Here, we aim to speak to ourselves as we would a best friend or a loved one. If this includes reframing the situation to see the positive, then so be it! It is just not a, “Don’t worry about it, there’s so many people worse off” kind of ‘positivity’ (I shudder).
I go into great detail on how to work through this in this post, so be sure to check that out! I include two examples on my free worksheet template in the above post – one of them is related to social anxiety in the classroom! Like all the other exposure-based interventions, this will require repetition. In the beginning, it is a good idea to write the situations out, but eventually you’ll be able to move through them in your head. It comes with rewiring your brain to do so. Sound impossible? I’m so used to doing it now after some months of practice that the very language that I use with myself has changed drastically. Which leads us to our final exercise…
5. Practice the four steps to dealing with automatic negative self-talk as a result of comparing to others.
I got this one from my psychotherapist, and it’s been the single most effective and fundamental process behind working through situations where I ineffectively compare myself to others. The four steps are as follows:
- Notice that I am comparing
- Stop; take a deep breath (allowing me to put space between my thought and my usual immediate intense emotion)
- Self-validate (“We all get stuck at times comparing ourselves to others who we perceive as being more successful, confident, etc.”)
- Compare effectively with good science (“May I remember that comparing is not effective for me, and that I am not comparing to an effective sample.”)
I use these steps every time I start to get lost in my head with comparisons to others. Usually, I’d start comparing based on thoughts that I “could never achieve what they are achieving”, when a quick fact check would reveal that a) I am focusing on other equally valid and valuable achievements, and b) I am comparing to peers who do not share the same struggles as I do with certain social situations.
It is okay that we struggle with social anxiety
I know that when I read through similar blog posts like these in the past, I was often struck with a sense of sadness or shame by the end of them. It is difficult to accept that we struggle with social anxiety. We get stuck in comparing ourselves to other people and become envious that others do not seem to struggle in this way. All of these sentiments are valid, and I want to stress to you that I have all of these mental struggles and more even when I am writing how to overcome it. It is okay to struggle. It is okay to take a rest. The only time it is not okay is when you completely give up.
You are giving yourself the greatest form of self-love right now by reading on how to become the best version of you that you can. By recognizing that social anxiety is not effective for you, and exploring ways to overcome it. Overriding those mental filters and ineffective core beliefs by being open to the fact that you are capable, and that you absolutely can do this. You are being self-compassionate! This is what we must all strive for.
Always remember to love (ARTL),
Books Referenced in this Post:
Antony, M. M., & Swinson, R. P. (2017). The shyness and social anxiety workbook: proven, step-by-step techniques for overcoming your fear (Third edition). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Bourne, E. J. (2015). The anxiety & phobia workbook (Sixth edition, revised). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Greenberger, D., & Padesky, C. A. (2016). Mind over mood: change how you feel by changing the way you think (Second edition). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.