How to Treat Social Anxiety Without Medication: What Worked for Me
A Quick Fix With No Long-Term Solution
Looking back on my seven years taking prescription medicine for social anxiety, I now see what a tragic waste it was of my life. It put me in a holding pattern — my emotions flattened, my spirit deadened, my joy minimized — while there was no action plan in place for getting better. It was a quick-fix provided by my doctor and the pharmaceutical companies that clearly missed the big picture: the concrete steps I needed to combat my fear and start leading a joyful life.
Medication Takes a Heavy Toll With Flattened Emotions and Little Joy
My struggles with social anxiety started during puberty and continued throughout high school. I avoided typical teenage activities — football games, dances, dates — because they caused me too much stress and worry. Even everyday events such as introducing myself in a group, eating lunch in the cafeteria, and walking through the narrow hallways stuffed with bodies made me uneasy. The constant social interaction in high school drained me physically and emotionally, leaving me with little energy for anything but my studies.
Obsessive compulsive behaviors began to take over my life. I constantly searched my hair for split ends and continuously checked my locker to make sure it was secure. It was long before the public discussion about social anxiety and obsessive compulsive behaviors had begun. Therefore, I was left with the simple conclusion that I was crazy, exacerbating feelings of shame and self-loathing.
Medications Just Hold the Problems at Bay Until You're Ready to Deal With Them
Launching a teaching career and finding my now-husband held the social anxiety at bay. It wasn't until I was 38 and my 3-year-old son got diagnosed with autism that my life started to unravel and I couldn't pull it together any longer. My doctor prescribed medication for social anxiety that I more than readily agreed to take.
But, what I realize now — with the wisdom of hindsight — is that I should have gone to therapy as well as taking the prescription. I should never have stayed on the drug for as long as I did — 7 long years — with no plan for stopping. When I finally weaned myself off it, a sad fact remained; I was right back where I started with fear dominating my existence. That's when I decided to discover healthy ways to deal with my social anxiety and bring back the joy that had been missing from my life for far too long.
What Is Social Anxiety?
It's an anxiety disorder in which a person experiences an unreasonable fear of social situations. This fear is intense, causing such distress that the person may avoid social situation altogether. Some people struggle with "anticipatory" anxiety meaning they fear the event for days and even weeks before it happens. Social anxiety is often accompanied by depression.
1. I Attended Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.
When I stopped taking medicine, I began cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to deal with my social anxiety. It was the first time I'd addressed the problem in a way other than drugs. Because I didn't have the time, money, or inclination to spend a prolonged period in counseling, cognitive-behavioral therapy was ideal for me: fast, effective, and result-orientated. I wanted to get from point A to point B and I wanted to get there fast!
Unlike the other two times I had tried therapy, this time I went in with a take-charge attitude, announcing: “I've struggled with social anxiety most of my life. Now I want to conquer it without medication. I'm committing to 6 weeks of therapy and then I'm done.”
I did my homework and found a highly competent therapist who appreciated how motivated I was. She gave me assignments each week that challenged me to become more social: When you're at the park with your kids, approach a mom and start a conversation. Invite a woman you want to know better out to lunch. Ask a question at your next office meeting.
I followed through on all the assignments faithfully (unlike my other times in therapy). During the six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, I started to tackle social situations with more confidence and less apprehension. I still didn't enjoy being social, but I wasn't avoiding it. I was on my way.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
It's the only therapy that's proven highly successful to treat people with anxiety disorders. The therapist acts like a teacher: presenting new information, a new skill, or a new way of being. The patient practices what she's learned in real world situations until it becomes automatic.
2. I Exercised Each Day Without Fail.
Without a doubt, exercise is the key for helping me combat my social anxiety. I now look back at periods in my life when I didn't make time for exercise — high school, my first year of teaching, when I was pregnant with my second child — and the effects were disastrous. It was as if I fell into a black abyss from which it was nearly impossible to escape.
Over the decades, I've come to realize that exercise is not optional for me. I need it every day for both my physical and psychological well-being. Since those of us who suffer from social anxiety don't like to get singled out, I hate structured classes such in aerobics or yoga where the teacher may walk by and criticize how I'm positioned. Instead, I thrive on activities I do alone such as walking, hiking, and riding my bike.
3. I Deliberately Put Myself in Situations that Required Chit-Chat.
Like many others who struggle with social anxiety, I loathed chit-chat. Talking with the checker at the market, speaking with moms before the PTA meetings, doing the polite yakety-yak that's expected in society was always a chore for me. But, if I didn't engage, I came off as cold, indifferent, and weird.
During cognitive-behavioral therapy, my counselor encouraged me to embrace situations that required chit-chat rather than avoiding them as I had most of my life. I started going to a checker at the market, not the self-check. I got full-service at the gas station instead of pumping my own. I arrived early to meetings for the sole purpose of talking to others. I read Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and put in practice what I learned.
Since those of us who suffer from social anxiety don't like the focus on us, it was fairly easy for me to do what Carnegie recommends: encouraging others to talk about themselves and becoming genuinely interested in other people. In the beginning, it was hard for me to concentrate on what the other person was saying because I was too anxious that I was getting judged. With a lot of time, practice, and self-awareness, however, I became more comfortable and started to enjoy it more.
4. I Started to Accept Myself and Take Better Care of Myself.
When I was little, my mother always admired the extroverts —– the girls who sang solos in the choir, bounced around the gym floor as cheer-girls, and conversed effortlessly with everyone and anyone. She coveted a daughter who was the exact opposite of me and never hesitated to let it be known. Needless to say, this did nothing to bolster my self-esteem or lessen my social anxiety.
Now, in my fifties, I'm finally accepting myself for the introvert I am. While my social anxiety is under control, I still prefer a life without a lot of people, noise, chaos, and interaction. Staying at home to read a book is my idea of a perfect night. Walking in the woods with my husband and dog is more fun for me than attending a concert or dancing in a club. I'm still incredibly drained by social interaction so I give myself lots of downtime to recharge my batteries...and that's perfectly all right.
5. I Took Charge and Set Limits in Social Situations.
During therapy, I realized that much of my anxiety during social situations stemmed from a lack of control. I dreaded going to parties and staying hour after hour with no end in sight. Now my husband and I make a game plan before any social event, setting a reasonable time for our exit — typically 2-3 hours. If we want to stay longer, we've worked out body signals to communicate this to one another.
In the past, I've also felt trapped and cornered by people who talk excessively to me. It made me feel so helpless that I just avoided the situations. Now, I know how to smile politely, give them a pat on the shoulder, and say as I leave, “It was so great getting a chance to catch up with you.” It works every time, and I no longer feel like a prisoner at parties.
Final Thoughts on Combating Social Anxiety
Throughout my life, social anxiety stopped me from experiencing many new people and new adventures. It limited my choices. But now, in the sixth decade of my life, I finally have a handle on it. I'm not overcome with fear and doubt like I once was. The tools I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy have served me well, and I continue to make progress every day.
Written by An Expert Who Understands Social Anxiety Inside and Out
Do yourself a favor and buy this book. I wish I had before spending seven years taking an anti-anxiety drug that flattened my emotions, made me gain weight, and did nothing to solve the real problem. This book focuses on concrete steps — based on cognitive behavioral techniques — to conquer your fears and insecurities. I highly recommend it.
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© 2016 McKenna Meyers