Social Anxiety and the Shrinking Comfort Zone

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The nature of anxiety is that it erodes your sense of security and safety and as it takes hold your comfort zone becomes smaller. I’ve described anxiety previously in Understanding anxiety and cultivating courage as an invisible prison cell where the cell bars can slowly close in on you; suffocating your sense of self and crushing your confidence to do things which others take for granted. The bars of this invisible cell are like the walls of your comfort zone, invisible to anyone other than you.

AnxietyThe first time you experience severe anxiety or a panic attack can be extremely frightening as you do not understand what is happening and likely feel your life is in threat. This feeling of threat may be amplified by the panic or insensitivity of others if they feel powerless to help and have no idea what is wrong.

This feeling of threat often becomes associated with whatever we might have been doing or our surroundings at the time it occurred. Your brain takes a snapshot of the scene or scenario and stores this info so it can instantly warn you and fire up your early warning biological response should this scenario or something similar arise again, whether it’s a sight, sound or smell.

Fight or Flight…

Unfortunately our brains cannot distinguish between a real or perceived threat and so often react in the same way with the biological flight or fight response. Having struggled with social anxiety and panic attacks myself, I always found it frustratingly difficult to explain just how terrifying it can feel.

In his book My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel describes the experience of anxiety as worse than when he was trapped in his house alone during a tornado like storm, with the windows exploding inwards and furniture being thrown around and his life at threat. This gives a small insight into just how frightening it can be.

To those who have never experienced a panic attack or severe anxiety it can be utterly perplexing to understand what is happening to someone and why. In fact those who struggle with anxiety often have no clue what is causing it or what they are afraid of. This difficulty in rationalising or understanding why we feel the way we do, can leave us and those around us feeling powerless too. Unfortunately as a result this can provoke insensitive responses in others who may feel uncomfortable and as a result react defensively.

The fear of this terrifying feeling naturally leads to ways of coping, such as avoidance. If we start to recognise the kind of situations that are likely to trigger anxiety, it makes sense that we would look to avoid them. Unfortunately, if these are situations that you’ve previously been perfectly comfortable in or routines you are accustomed to; it can cause havoc in your daily life as you do less of the things you want or need to.

Feeling suffocated…

Social AnxietyThe very nature of your comfort zone’s invisibility to others can cause major problems in your relationships and social life. As you become more fearful and avoid more activities or locations, the walls close in, and each instance can reinforce the last making your world smaller and leaving you feeling suffocated.

Often the fear feels so powerful that you naturally find further coping mechanisms, so that you might feel a little more in control of your life. An awareness of this can help us to be more compassionate and understanding towards ourselves and others, who may struggle to leave their own homes or be around other people.

These coping mechanisms can become ingrained in you over time to the point where they become automatic in the same way we automatically brush our teeth every day or drive to work without really consciously thinking about it. What may have become an automatic form of ritual to you may seem eccentric to someone else without them understanding why.

The more fearful you may become, the harder it can be for the people we care about to understand what’s happening for us. It’s easy to see for example, how a friend you have always gone to the pub with might get frustrated with you avoiding going out for a drink every time they ask; when you have never previously had any problems with it. Without the insight into your world and how you feel they are left to make their own assumptions.

So what can we do to help ourselves?

Consider firstly, what are your comfort zones? Where do you retreat when you feel anxious or panicky? And just as importantly which situations seem to trigger anxiety or panic for you?

Don’t expect yourself to be able to identify a complete list. The nature of anxiety is that it does not always strike in situations you find very stressful,  but it is more likely to. Don’t focus on ridding yourself completely of anxiety in one massive leap. You would likely to be setting yourself up to fail. If for example you are naturally sensitive, you may also be trying to eradicate something which is part of your personality. The intention is to build some resilience, become more comfortable with feeling vulnerable and bring an improvement in your quality of life.

There are two ways you can look at working with your comfort zone and as with many things, perspective matters:

Firstly the way we are often told to look at it:

Your comfort zone is a rut. Anything outside it is the stuff that causes you fear, stress or anxiety but it’s also where all the good stuff is that you want or need to do. In order to change that, you need to push against the boundaries, hopefully gaining more confidence as you succeed.

Alternatively, you could look at this way:

The bigger your comfort zone is the better. It’s the area where you feel secure enough to take action and make things happen. So if you are able to expand your comfort zone, then it makes sense you will be able to do more things comfortably as a result. Expanding your comfort zone empowers you to take more action both within and outside of your comfort zone.

Consider the things that you recognise as being in your comfort zone. Perhaps you think, ‘but everything outside of my own home is out of my comfort zone?!’ But in the age we now live in and with the advances of technology there are things you can accomplish within your own home in order to make your life less stressful and build your confidence so that you might be able to take a leap of faith.

  • Go online; there are many networks of people who struggle with social anxiety, panic and agoraphobia amongst other issues. Connecting with people who understand will help you feel less isolated and more understood, you may also make new friends, even from your own home.
  • If people you care about are becoming frustrated with you or struggling to understand what is going on with you, try to talk to them honestly and openly. If you find it very difficult to communicate how you feel, find an account of anxiety which fits for you. There are many accounts on various blogs, ask them to read it in their own time, this may help them to understand what’s going on for you. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming they should know what’s going on with you.
  • Remind yourself of the things you already do well within your comfort zone. No matter how small your comfort zone is, you will be good at something. The chances are you have become so preoccupied with the things you cannot do, that you give yourself no credit for things you actually do well. Focus on what you can do well or the things that don’t scare you quite so much until you build the courage to stretch yourself.
  • Learn to recognize when avoidance is a good way of adapting and when it’s something you need to challenge. For example, if you are avoiding being around someone because they are insensitive or emotionally abusive, this is healthy self-protection and there is no reason you should push yourself to suffer that. If however, you are avoiding being around people out of fear of panic, this is something you will need to challenge at some stage in order to improve your quality of life.
  • Consider whether you find it harder or easier to do something when you feel obligated. Feeling obligated can add pressure and create resistance, for example if a friend wants you to do something social. However, if you struggle with self acceptance and find it hard to motivate yourself there are times when obligations can motivate us to do something healthy which we may not otherwise. For example, if you have a dog that you need to take for walks or you are supporting a friend who is struggling with something similar.
  • If you know on some level that your anxiety started with a traumatic event, a pattern of behavior, such as being bullied or an abusive relationship; be honest with yourself enough to accept that you may need to seek support from a qualified therapist to help you find your way through this. Unresolved trauma and shame can corrode your sense of self-worth, leave you in fear of others judgments and struggling with social anxiety as a result.

Try to keep in mind that all fear is relative to your own unique situation.  Courage is doing something despite your fear, not doing something without fear or that others fear. Remember to celebrate your small victories and the things you do well, rather than focusing on the things you wish you could do.

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