Leaving social anxiety behind in 3 steps – the detailed process of how I did it

having-fun

I had spent many years trying to get rid of social anxiety before I finally succeeded. I tried many things that didn’t work – self-help books, medication, visits to a regular psychologist, even NLP (neuro-linguistic programming – it’s a form of psychotherapy that claims to be especially effective with treating phobias – well, it wasn’t for me…).

In between, I tried to wait it out, hoping that my anxiety would somehow fade away as I got older. None of that worked. I was still the unhappy, anxious, frustrated person that I had always been. “Maybe it’s just who I am? Maybe that’s my fate?” I thought. But I didn’t give up and, when I was 27, I made the decision what would be the Step 1 in my process of change – to look for a licensed CBT therapist.

  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT-Therapy

Why didn’t I try it out earlier? I don’t know. But now I know it would have spared me years of sitting in my room, reading books and daydreaming about what I could do if I didn’t have the anxiety.

Cognitive behavioral therapy may be quite a mouthful, but the principles of this kind of treatment are quite simple. You have it all in the name:

COGNITIVE – stands for thinking part, what goes on in your head, that is the cognition. The therapist will help you identify your negative thought patterns and then work with you to change them into healthy ways of thinking. And believe me – there will be quite a lot of harmful stuff going on in your head…

BEHAVIORAL – that is your behavior. We learn to react in certain ways to stressful situations, and when you have social anxiety these automatic reactions strengthen your negative emotional response and create vicious circle, that’s difficult to break out of.

And here’s where CBT begins to work – when you put together changes in those two areas: your thinking and your behavior, you slowly begin to loosen the strangulating grip of social phobia.

You could theoretically do the therapy on your own using some self-help books, but I don’t think that’s a good solution. I for that matter really needed someone else’s perspective on my inner world, and I would probably never work out what’s wrong with my thoughts on my own.

How did the therapy look like? We worked to identify my cognitive distortions (and there were quite a few: personalization, mind reading, all-or-nothing thinking, filtering, emotional reasoning, labeling – you can read more on cognitive distortions here). I began learning to catch myself during the day whenever I was thinking along those harmful lines. I started to keep a journal  for writing down how I felt and what it REALLY meant, seeing the stuff in my head from a new, healthy perspective. I wrote down lists of things I am grateful for, my positive traits, things I love about my father (this was important since I blamed him for my anxiety – I had to accept him with his imperfections and take responsibility for my life instead of mulling over how his chilly character and negative attitudes made me who I was).

The behavioral part of the therapy was learning how to not run away from social situations, how to face them and stay as long as possible in them. This was the most difficult part – to learn how to keep talking in face of rampaging anxiety, when you’re sweating profusely, your face turns red and your voice is shaking…

How did it work for me? Well, it worked SLOWLY. It wasn’t an overnight miracle – the truth is you won’t get cured in a few weeks. If the anxiety is something that’s been shaping you and influencing your life for years, removing it won’t be instantaneous, like flipping a switch.

And that’s another reason why you need a therapist – it’s somebody who will support you during the long months when progress may be slow and you may become disheartened.

My CBT took almost a year of weekly meetings (after a few months I met my therapist every two weeks). After that I had a follow-up session, 6 months after the end of therapy. At that time I knew I changed, but anxiety still lurked around (although not as much as before) and my personal life was as featureless as ever before. I was still a loner, spending evenings and weekends at home. To move ahead on the road to recovery I needed more, and that was Step 2 – getting out into the world.

  1. Getting out into the world

hello-world

After a year of cognitive behavioral therapy I began to think a little bit differently and started to behave in new ways, trying to rise up to challenging situations instead of running away or mentally shutting down. But I was still thinking of myself as a guy with social anxiety and I felt its stings every day.  What I needed to really move on was exposure to social interactions, talking, meeting people, building the social skills that I lacked.

Unfortunately, my lifestyle was perfectly adjusted to the needs and fears of an anxious guy and that means it was completely UNSTIMULATING.

But I was lucky – just as my CBT came to an end my company offered me to work in a different city for a few months. As you can imagine, I was terrified. A year earlier I would’ve immediately said “no”. Before CBT, all I wanted was to be left alone, undisturbed, safe in my cocoon of solitude. But the therapy changed my perspective. I was still anxious at the thought of such a sudden, complete change of environment, all the people I would have to meet, all the unavoidable conversations, introductions and other social situations that seem utterly normal and mundane to most people. Nevertheless I was beginning to understand that this scary social stuff was precisely what I needed to move on, to get better. And so after few days of consideration I said yes and within two weeks began working 300km from my home city, where I knew nobody and nobody knew me.

Beginning work in a new place wasn’t easy for me. Up to this point I worked at my desk, with headphones on, doing engineering stuff on my computer, almost never striking conversations with colleagues, sometimes spending straight 8 hours without saying a word, besides the “hi” in the morning and “see you” in the afternoon… Wasn’t that social phobic’s paradise?? Actually,  these were the perfect working conditions not only for living with social anxiety, but also for KEEPING IT.

At the new office it all changed. My main job task was no longer staring at the screen all day, but talking with other employees and helping solve their problems.  I had to INTERACT with people! There was no excuse, I couldn’t run away or pick and choose safe situations. Additionally, there was a different office culture, slower pace at work and people expected me to chat with them.

All that socializing was still demanding and most of the times stressful for me, but for the first time in my life I felt like a NORMAL PERSON. I was doing it – talking, smiling, not averting my eyes, not rushing to end the contact. I was wobbly and shaky at times, but with each passing week I felt more optimistic. Within a few months I began to have something resembling social life, became friends with a few people at the office, started to go out to restaurants and other places.

That doesn’t mean I stopped getting anxiety meltdowns altogether. They happened from time to time, but my attitude changed. I didn’t view them as catastrophes anymore, they lost that destructive power to ruin my mood and dictate my thoughts. I had learned to accept anxiety as part of every man’s life and thanks to this acceptance it lost the ability to overpower me.

At that point I thought “This is it, I can function as any other normal person I know, I’ve made it!”. But it turned out, I could go farther than that. And all the really amazing things were just about to begin.

  1. Plunging into the social world

Successful group of people smiling

After 10 months I returned to my home city. I was now able to take pleasure in every day contacts with people, but I wanted more. I wanted to meet people, make friends, go to parties, have fun, enjoy all kinds of social settings. Large part of that stemmed from the sense of lost time, I just wanted to catch up with life. Most of my life I had been a Loner with the capital L. My social life was my closest family, I never went to parties, attended no birthdays, get-togethers, nothing of that kind. There were of course some rare occasions like one New Year party with old friends from high school, but I remembered those as painfully stressful experiences, with me self-conscious even when drunk.

So I wanted to meet more people, but I wasn’t sure how. And then I came upon a blog post about a concept called social skydiving. I have no idea if the blogger, Brad Bollenbach, came up with term himself or whether it had existed before. But what he was writing about sounded to me exciting and terrifying at the same time. Social skydiving basically means talking to strangers, in any kind of setting, be it on the street, in a bar, while you’re waiting in a queue or doing your shopping. I spent hours going through his blog, and the more I read the more excited I became. He was a sincere, down-to-earth guy, open about his fears and weaknesses, who admitted to long periods of loneliness before or the fact that he’d had problems with looking random people in the eyes at the beginning. I felt I could relate to his story. And if he could transform his life and meet as many people as he wanted, why wouldn’t I able to do it as well?

The blog post came in the right moment. I had just tackled the biggest single problem of my life and lived with the growing belief that ANYTHING is possible. Leaving social anxiety behind meant that I developed the so-called growth mindset (I’ll write about the difference between the fixed versus growth mindset later). Suddenly I began to see my weaknesses not as permanent characteristics of me, but as skills that I did not yet have. And skills are learnable, you develop them with PRACTICE.

So what did I do next? The article listed the ways to meet new people and one of those was couchsurfing. It’s a community of people organized around the idea of travelling on the cheap – hence the surfing of the couches. You’ll find couchsurfers in thousands of cities around the world and they also organize lots of parties and other events. I googled their website, set up account, found the nearest regular event, went there and transformed my life once again…

I became part of a community of the most sociable, outgoing and gregarious people you can imagine. Being immersed in that amazing mental energy of open-minded and self-confident travelers (or aspiring travelers) was unforgettable learning experience, comparable only with my opening up from the Step 2. Just trying to keep up with them during loud conversations in a crowded bars or pubs, was very demanding for me. It felt like a training grounds for social skills. And I tried to make the most out of it.

Within just a few months I was a changed man. I was quick to laugh, positively interested in people and able to navigate social situations that would have me paralysed just two years before. I started enjoy striking up conversations with complete strangers, just for fun, in any place.

If it all sounds hard to believe, it’s because it is. I myself would sometimes stop for a moment and wonder “How was it all possible, how did I accomplish this incredible journey of self-transformation?”. I began from a place where I would give anything to just stop turning red – and now I’ve become a smooth talker?? (it’s a term somebody actually called me).

For me the lesson here is: do not set boundaries to your dreams, because what you can achieve may be more than you could ever imagine possible.

Cheers! I wish you all speedy progress on the path to anxiety-free life!

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Self help books and social anxiety – can they help you? - Social anxiety overcome

  2. Victoria

    July 4, 2015 at 8:42 pm

    Dear Mike,
    …Thank you… God bless you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *