How to Improve Social Anxiety

Social anxiety is the generic term that psychologists use to describe nerves about public speaking and other interpersonal situations. When I was a teenager, I was very anxious about speaking. I remember asking my older sister, Sheila, to call an employer for me about a job interview because I was too nervous to do it myself. Over the years, it got much better, but the susceptibility to that form of anxiety often never disappears completely.

Many years later, I trained as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist and ended up working with people suffering from a range of severe anxiety disorders, including what we call Social Anxiety Disorder or Social Phobia. I learned that there are many hundreds of scientific research studies on social anxiety that tell us how it works. Modern research has actually shown us how to treat social anxiety very effectively. However, it also shows that some very common self-help techniques can potentially do more harm than good.

One of the most well-established findings in the entire field of psychotherapy research is that most anxiety abates naturally, given the right conditions. For example, animal phobias are often considered the simplest and purest form of anxiety. If you take someone who has a snake phobia and throw them in a room with snakes what will happen to their heart rate? Within thirty seconds, it will approximately double, from about 70bpm to about 140bpm. But what happens next?

Most clients with severe anxiety will actually be temporarily stumped by that question. They want to say it will get worse, or some catastrophe will happen, although they realise that can’t be right. What goes up must come down. If they wait, their heart rate will normally start to reduce. So how long does that take? It normally takes anything from five to thirty minutes for heart rate to go from its peak level back down to something approaching the normal resting level.

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