Consider this, you’ve been invited to an acquaintance’s party where you know very few people. You end up arriving to a horde of strangers. You don’t know anyone there.
Or maybe it’s a work event with all the top executives you report to and you are the brand new person on the team.
It might even be that you find yourself in a crowded space where you are either too noticed or not noticed at all. Every day our social demands require us to adapt from one moment to the next in order to navigate a changing emotional landscape with ease and grace in our mind and body.
Does your body feel any of these during moments like this?
- Tight throat
- Upset stomach
- Profuse sweating
- Fluttering heart
- Clouded thoughts
- Muscle tension
- Urge to hide
If so, then you are experiencing a stress response to a social stimulus. Welcome to the club! The body is responding to a perception of an anticipated awkward, embarrassing or threatening outcome.
So what are the stories that in your head that anticipate a stressful outcome?
Social anxiety usually starts long before we come in contact with others. It’s can start as the mental checklist of negatively-biased stories leading up to an event.
Will they like me?
Am I smart enough?
Do I fit in?
Do I stand out?
What do I have to prove in order to be accepted?
Am I safe?
Do I feel seen and heard?
Am I invisible?
For some of us these stories come from a lifetime of belief and repetition; they are the familiar paradigm upon which we might base our identity and value. We don’t just carry the stories, the body wears them like skin, structures itself upon them like bones, and they moves us like muscle. Neuroscience has proven we embody what we think and that is both a gift and a challenge of our mammalian nervous system.
How to Thrive from the Inside Out
If our worrisome thoughts and beliefs shape our nervous system then perhaps the converse is true: tuning the nervous system differently can shape our beliefs for a different outcome. We are socially driven mammals with a very highly developed frontal brain whose core purpose is for healthy social connection. This means two things: either we have a repeated history of positive social connection and we feel regulated and socially capable, or we do not and often feel that social invitation is a threat in some way.
As miraculous humans with bodies, our nervous system is designed to keep us safe. It easily remembers our negative experiences and fears as some of the most powerful moments from which to form our future concerns. If we’ve ever been overlooked, marginalized, dismissed, embarrassed, shamed, or outcast our frontal brain notes that our core social needs have not been met and we hold that memory as a warning to be heeded in future social environments. Our brain treats social needs as equivalent to survival needs, so these moments shape our sense of actual survival.
The great news is we can do something about it! We can actually tune and recalibrate the nervous system to be more adaptable when we need it. We can hack into the momentum of our stories and fears and redirect that energy into calming our sense of threat so that we are more able to put ourselves out there socially. If we carry an innate sense of safety and self-acceptance, then socializing gets easier and less risky.
Tuning Your Nervous System Tips
Our most primitive system dedicated to regulating our social fear response in is the vagus system named after the 10th cranial nerve. This nerve is designed to bring the heart rate back to slow and steady whenever it’s spiked from fear. Bringing ourselves back to a resting heart rate is a great way to down-regulate the body’s response to our very own stories. Studies have shone that people with high vagal tone (meaning it’s more capable) are perceived as more empathic, generally approachable, more even tempered and even gregarious. The vagus nerve tones itself to be more resilient in a few simple ways.
- Learn to exhale
When we inhale we actually elevate our heart rate, and when we exhale we slow it down. This is the job of the vagus nerve. This kind of heart rate variability means that the more the exhale calms the heart rate, the more resiliently we can calm ourselves down. Many of us with social anxiety have a hard time calming the heart rate. A great practice to start tuning and improving that resilience is to practice a few minutes each day where you bring your awareness to your inhale first, and intentionally make the exhale a few counts longer as though you were blowing out candles on a cake. This practice over time can help you increase your vagal tone.
- Learn to shake
Shaking helps us release any stored contractions in the muscles that tends to be a result of a stress or anxiety spike. Until those muscles are released and soften the body will continue to perceive threat and remain in and anxiety state. A quick and vigorous shake a few times a day is a powerful way to bring release to the nervous system and interrupt the thought cycle.
Ok, so some of us would rather not but if you are shy about it you can do this in the shower or your car. Singing, chanting, humming and even gargling can bring gentle vibrations to the neck which stimulates the vagus nerve. This kind of gentle stimulation allows us to tone that system while also giving us access to the longer exhale we noted in tip #1.
Remember social anxiety isn’t something you just suddenly get over, it’s something you work on and practice little by little. These tips can be used for overall toning, long term adaptation, and in the moment relief.
You can choose to address the beliefs as well with a strong daily meditation practice like Neurosculpting® and other mental retraining systems.