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Social Anxiety: Practice Your Skills

Concrete steps to relieve social anxiety.Use Step 7 of the Panic Attack Self-Help Program to set your Long-term and Short-term Goals. Then create ways to practice facing your fears by designing your Short-term Tasks. Here are a few guidelines regarding your practice, to be added to those in Step 7:

1. Set realistic Tasks that help you practice the central skills.

Can you tell where the flaws are in the following Tasks?

  • Give my speech without anyone noticing my nervousness
  • Sign my name smoothly, without my hand shaking
  • Get someone to agree to go on a date
  • Participate in a job interview without making a mistake

These objectives reflect more of the same; they are ways that you put unnecessary performance pressure on yourself through Negative Observer rules and regulations. These Task goals reflect the following types of beliefs:

  • I should never let anyone see that I am nervous.
  • I should perform perfectly.
  • My self-worth should be based on what other people think.
  • I should always be able to figure out what to say.

Beware of setting such unrealistic, self-defeating Tasks. At the same time, know that you are prone to establish such expectations automatically. That is why I encourage you to purposely stop and consciously review your expectations before and after any social encounter. By writing your intended purposes for any Task, and by reviewing them before and after the event, you can better catch yourself slipping into your Negative Observer rules. If your circumstances allow, review your expectations during the middle of your practice, to keep your thinking process on track.

2. Describe your Tasks in behavioral terms.

Outline the specific actions you will take. State the number of times or the length of time you will engage in the behavior. Here are some examples:

  • Notice my Negative Observer comments during my next two conversations, and challenge them
  • Use three different supportive comments and work on believing them
  • Call three different stores asking if an item is in stock
  • Make small talk of at least two exchanges with someone in line at the bank
  • Call one person, engage in small talk for at least three minutes, then ask her for a date
  • Purposely stumble over a word while ordering food at a restaurant
  • Compliment three people at work today
  • Raise my hand to ask or answer a question in three different classes this week

3. Properly assess your fear, then target your practice.

To become comfortable socially, you need to specifically address the fears that you dread. Think carefully about your true worries. For example:

  • You may not be concerned about giving a speech. You worry about giving a speech while sweating.
  • You may not feel apprehension about ordering food in a restaurant. You worry about stumbling over a word while ordering food.
  • You may not be afraid of signing your name in public. You dread signing your name in public while your hand shakes, causing your signature to appear irregular.

What are your actual fears? Make sure that you design practices that get you closer and closer to managing the difficulties that you now avoid. By becoming courageous enough to provoke your dreaded symptoms or outcomes, you gain control over your fears. When you can no longer be blackmailed by your fears, then you become stronger and more comfortable. Don't simply practice entering the setting you fear. Find ways to generate the behaviors that intimidate you.

4. Create simulations, role-plays and other structured sessions for skill practice.

There are three reasons to set up simulated practices. First is that they provide a safer environment to practice your skills. You will then be more willing to experiment with new and different responses. Create role-plays with family members or friends to practice taking a job interview, using "small talk" at a party, asking someone for a date, talking to your boss or taking an exam. Enroll in an assertiveness training class in your community or local college. Join your local Toastmasters International for a supportive place to practice your speaking skills.


Second, during a simulation, you can set up certain responses from others that would be more difficult to create in "real life" settings. For instance, if you fear that others will interrupt you during your speech and criticize your main points, it is both impractical and self-defeating to mess up your actual presentation badly enough to receive such criticism. In this case, design a role-play with friends where the "audience" interrupts you with criticism.

Third, as I mentioned earlier, some socially uncomfortable events are brief contacts. Yet remaining in a distressing situation for extended periods is one of the best ways to improve your comfort. Therefore, it may be necessary to repeat a brief encounter several times during a single practice session. For instance, you might want to simulate calling someone on the phone to ask for a date. Since that Task may only take three minutes, plan to practice it with a friend as the "potential date" four or five times in a row. For this same reason, you may need to set up practice sessions in which you sign your name repetitively while your friends gather around and look over your shoulder. Similar structured practice can help you become comfortable with looking someone in the eye as you pass, saying hello in the hall at work, shaking hands, answering a question in class, or bumping into someone you know.

5. Learn to perform while anxious.

Learning to tolerate your anxiety symptoms should be one of your top goals. In any social setting, practice tolerating whatever anxiety you experience, to the best of your ability, using the coping skills you have learned. Try not to escape because of your discomfort. This is a learning opportunity for you consciously and it is a way for you to contribute to your body's unconscious habituation process. Don't just enter the feared situation, grit your teeth and bear up. Actively engage in your coping skills. Over time, you will discover the paradoxical truth: the more you accept your uncomfortable symptoms, the less bothersome they'll be, and the greater likelihood they will diminish.

6. Give special attention to your self-talk.

Throughout your practice -- before, during and after -- listen for your Negative Observer comments and interrupt them.

7. Do something every day to confront your fears.

Frequency is important. Find every opportunity to practice. Don't just wait for a natural time or setting. Purposely generate Tasks that put you face-to-face with the situations you fear, as a way to practice your skills.

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APA Reference
Writer, H. (2009, January 11). Social Anxiety: Practice Your Skills, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, October 21 from https://www.healthyplace.com/anxiety-panic/articles/social-anxiety-practice-your-skills

Last Updated: July 1, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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