The power of perseverance amid an anxiety epidemic

There are many challenges facing our mental health. We are living amid an anxiety epidemic. Depression is one of the most significant mental health issues of our time. In this exclusive extract from his new book, Emotional Resilience, Dr Harry Barry talks us through an important skill – how to be comfortable in social situations.

Toxic stress is flourishing. Technology and social media are insidiously, pervasively invading our space. Mental health is defined by the World Health Authority (2013) as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. Life is a constant struggle — a roller-coaster emotional ride.

But some of us seem to cope better with this emotional roller coaster. They seem calmer, effortlessly dealing with life’s challenges, immune to mental health difficulties. These are the people we envy and want to emulate.

What makes them different? Why do they seem wiser, a source of stability for those seeking assistance and support?

The answer lies in emotional resilience; that is, their emotional capacity to deal with the difficulties of life. Many assume emotional resilience is a gift handed down only to some lucky individuals, blessed in the draw for life.

They must have better genes, more secure upbringings or maybe they are simply fortunate in how things work out for them.

The rest of us struggle on. While genes and upbringing are relevant in some of those with emotional resilience, what makes this group special is their unique ability to pragmatically interpret and manage the stressors of life. Here, I talk about how to become comfortable in social situations.

‘The Party I Want to Avoid’

Why this Skill Is Important?

Some readers will know the feeling. An invitation arrives to attend a party. For some of us, this is greeted with delight, an opportunity to meet up with friends or encounter interesting strangers.

For others of us, it presents a greater challenge. Uncomfortable in social interactional situations, we become extremely anxious when an invitation arrives.

People who struggle in these situations are suff ering from social anxiety. We deal with this condition in detail in Anxiety and Panic, for those who would like to understand and eliminate it from their lives.

We can avoid social anxiety, however, by developing the skill of how to become comfortable in social situations. Th is is a skill we should all develop as early in life as possible.

Many of our adolescents and young adults, who are more comfortable communicating online, struggle with this social skill, leading to signifi cant social anxiety in their young adult lives.

Some readers may want to skip this skill, assuming it is not relevant to them, but I encourage you to bear with me. There will always be social situations where we might feel slightly uncomfortable.

It is useful to understand why it is happening and what to do about it. Even if you are not experiencing signifi cant personal diffi culties in this area, family members, friends or work colleagues may not be so fortunate. We need to be empathetic to their struggles and assist them.

How to Develop this Skill

When exposed to a social interactional situation, the socially anxious person is concerned that some of the following may occur.

  • 1. They will develop the classic signs of acute anxiety, in the form of a racing heart, a stomach in knots, sweating, blushing, a dry mouth and a sense of dread.
  • 2. Everyone will notice these physical symptoms.
  • 3. People will notice that they are awkward, fidgety, hanging around the edge of groups, and poor at conversation.
  • 4. Lastly, if any or all of the above do happen, people will assume they are anxious and judge them accordingly as weak or socially inadequate.

Because of these concerns, people with social anxiety will engage in a host of avoidant or safety behaviours, which compound the problem.

Let’s take Maria. She is invited to attend a workplace event in a local hotel, and immediately becomes physically anxious and considers pulling out. However, she is prevailed upon by her boss to attend. The closer she gets to the event the more physically anxious she became.

Maria is convinced her colleagues will see her experiencing these physical symptoms, and that’s when her difficulties accelerate.

What will happen if they view her as anxious and, as a result, judge her as weak or socially inadequate? She will be so embarrassed. At the event, she becomes extremely self-conscious of everything she does, which makes her more anxious.

She struggles to engage in conversation. She finds herself in the toilets, constantly checking her appearance before and during the event. She stays well out, at the edge of the group, hoping nobody will see how anxious she is.

These behaviours ratchet up her anxiety levels. She finds the whole night an exhausting ordeal, and leaves at the earliest opportunity. If you can relate to these emotions and physical feelings, and are uncomfortable in social situations, then the following insights and exercises may be of assistance.

What Was Maria Anxious About?

Let’s now explore what Maria was anxious about. Firstly, she assumed that other people could see her sweating, blushing, and so on.

But is this true in real life? The answer is no! The reality is that the physical symptoms of anxiety are impossible to see, despite what Maria feels. She was also anxious they would see her as fidgety and uncomfortable, or a poor conversationalist.

What Maria believes metaphorically is that she is wearing the equivalent of a ‘high vis’ jacket which will make her stand out in the crowd and be instantly recognizable.

Once again, is this true? No. We are all so obsessed with our own worlds that we rarely register such behaviours.

Her final concern was that others would judge her, due to these anxiety symptoms, as weak and socially inadequate. It is this belief that is causing her to feel embarrassed. But does this happen in real life? No.

Maria does not understand that she is a long way down their list of priorities, at the top of which lies themselves. Most people will be unaware she is even in the room! Many readers can relate to Maria’s discomfort.

They struggle to accept that others do not see the physical symptoms of anxiety and judge them accordingly. If you fall into this group, I recommend the following exercises.

They may seem whacky, but they teach us important lessons about what actually happens in real-life social situations, for social anxiety is created by false perceptions versus reality.

The Anxiety Inspector Exercise

For the next four weeks, in every social event, seek out those people who clearly suffer from the physical symptoms of anxiety. Since a significant number in every group will be anxious, this should be an easy task!

When you find them, write down in your notebook what physical symptoms you observed that convinced you they were anxious.

Strangely enough, you may find plenty of blank pages in your notebook. In practice, you will struggle to identify such symptoms, as it is virtually impossible to pick them out.

So, what does that say about the chances of others seeing similar physical symptoms in you, when you are anxious?

The Supermarket Exercise

I use many versions of this ‘embarrassment exercise’ to assist people in becoming comfortable in a social situation. Underlying the exercise is the false belief, held by many of us in social situations, that people are busy watching and assessing us as anxious and, as a result, judging us.

These perceptions emanate from our emotional mind but are not borne out rationally in real life. We may cognitively agree with this, but emotionally we still cling on to our false perceptions. Here is one version of the exercise.

Visit several busy supermarkets weekly for four weeks. Take a basket, and fi ll it with ten separate items.

Then join the busiest checkout queue. Just as you get to the cashier, excuse yourself from the queue and then reverse your steps, returning to each aisle and replacing the items back on their shelves. You then leave the store empty-handed. You will feel incredibly self-conscious. Everyone in the store will be looking at you and judging you. Right?

Who is this lunatic? Or will they? The purpose of this exercise is for you to observe what happens in practice. In your emotional mind, this exercise is going to be a nightmare of embarrassment. In practice, most people will barely notice your presence in the store.

They will be so busy and preoccupied with their own worlds that you will fail to register on their horizon. They will just note a shorter queue! But you must experience this in real life to appreciate this truth.

You can vary the exercise by putting on bright clothes, or a wide brimmed hat or anything that in your mind makes you stick out like a sore thumb. This is the easiest of the supermarket exercises to perform. There are other, more wicked ones!

If you do these exercises repeatedly, you will begin to understand emotionally that in practice people, notice almost nothing. They are completely self – obsessed, do not register the physical symptoms of Anxiety never mind judge you and are often barely aware of your actual existence.

These exercises must be carried out with a sense of humour. In the beginning, you will feel extremely self – conscious and anxious. After performing them repeatedly you may notice wryly, that you are less important socially than you think you are. It is so disconcerting!

You will also find yourself less stressed about social interactions, approaching them more with a sense of humour rather than being anxious or embarrassed.

Eventually, you will be comfortable not only in your own skin, but in the presence of others. Your social anxiety will be a distant memory. Later I will introduce you to a conversation exercise to assist you further in social situations.

Key Learning Points

  • 1. Learning how to be comfortable in social situations is one of the most important emotional resilience skills to assist us in navigating our social world.
  • 2. Those who struggle with this skill oft en believe that others can see signs they are physically anxious and that they will be judged as weak if this happens.
  • 3. They engage in a host of safety and avoidant behaviours which can paralyse their social lives.
  • 4. With the assistance of some simple exercises, we can challenge some of these misperceptions and behaviours and learn to embrace rather than dread social situations.

Dr Harry Barry’s Emotional Resilience is out now in all good bookstores and online. It is published by Orion Publishing and Hachette Ireland. €16.99.

Dr Harry Barry’s other books on emotional health:

  • Anxiety and Panic: How to reshape your anxious mind and brain
  • Toxic Stress: A step-by-step guide to managing stress
  • Depression: A practical guide
  • Flagging the Therapy: Pathways out of depression and anxiety
  • Flagging the Problem: A new mental health

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