Testimony, Anxiety

06 November, 2023

Taking steps to freedom from social anxiety: a service user experience

If you experience social anxiety, you may take on more things as you learn how to cope with it. A former service user shares her experience of this change.

Paula is a member of our Service User and Supporters Council (SUAS). Here, she talks us through how she progressed from, in her words, doing nearly nothing to doing nearly everything.

Ways of feeling less anxious

For many years, I was acutely depressed. This depression decided the course of my life for a long time, and my anxiety worsened this already difficult depression. 

There is a whole list of things that make anxious people more anxious. They are many and varied, but some seem to be common to nearly everyone. High on the list is social anxiety situations, which were the main cause of my anxiety in the past. Social anxiety can be a very distressing anxiety, and scores very highly on the ‘what to avoid doing’ lists that many anxious people have in their heads. 

If, like me, you do (or did) only those things that don’t make you anxious, then you will do very little. But that’s not the end of the story: if you are depressed and/or anxious, you need not stay in those states. Happily, we can move to a place where anxiety hijacks our lives less and less.

Here, I am addressing social anxiety, and can give you some of the tips and hints that worked for me. I would like to explain how you can progress from feeling very anxious in social situations, to feeling freer and being less anxious in them.

Impact of social anxiety

Social anxiety can plunge an already anxious person into a panic, in anticipation of a social event that they consider too stressful to cope with.

If the person had no perception of the future social event, then there would be no problem. But there is a problem: the problem is that the person sees in their own mind how the proposed event will pan out. They see themselves in this place in the future with other people. They see themselves not coping, and it makes them anxious. They don’t judge other people, but they judge themselves very harshly. They judge themselves for being anxious, even though they are trying not to be anxious - but being anxious is a feeling, not a moral flaw.

As a result of this, they frequently avoid going to anxiety-inducing places or situations. Avoidance-type behaviour becomes the norm. The person would really like to go to a particular place or be in a particular situation, but the thoughts they have about the future frighten them to such a degree that they feel it’s better not to go at all.  

The good news is that anxiety can be managed. Doctors and others who form medical or multidisciplinary teams in psychiatric hospitals will attest to how much people experiencing anxiety can be helped in radical ways. Also, the means we ourselves use in order to help ourselves can benefit our lives hugely; we certainly are ‘experts by experience’.

We can learn not to be anxious. After some time, you can become a person who is anxious some of the time, instead of being a person who is anxious all of the time. You can move on with your life. Your quality of life can improve dramatically. 

In my experience, this process is carried out in three stages.

Changes to thought processes

Stage one is where you are so anxious with social anxiety that you just don’t go to many social events. You would probably love to go to the concert hall, the art gallery, the cinema or the party, but your anxiety holds you back. You choose not to attend these events, because the anxiety these events causes is just too severe to make it worthwhile to engage with these events. The more events there are for you to attend, the less you like it.  All the “what if?” thoughts come streaming back, and fill your thinking time: “What if I can’t cope? What if I fall? What if I shake? What if other people laugh at me?”. The list can go on and on.

This is stage one. You are too afraid to go nearly anywhere. You think that you have avoided an anxiety-inducing situation - but at what cost? In the process of avoiding these social situations, you have missed out. You may have missed meeting friends or family; seeing a good film or a party; having the fun of getting dressed up for the event; or enjoying the chat and coffee afterwards. You missed the confidence that attending such events brings, and, in the process, you haven’t solved your problem: your dilemma of avoiding social situations becomes more pronounced and far-reaching. You are stuck on the same sticky wicket all the time. 

Some help is needed. The help is needed to aid thought processes. To begin to change how you perceive future social events, I recommend an anxiety management course. There are many of these courses available, in-person or online. They are hugely successful, and give you really great means of grappling with social anxiety. 

Really, stepping out and doing the thing you fear and hate to do will be the first activity on the agenda. If you think thoughts that frighten you in advance of a social engagement, then it’s hard to attend the event or function; you become filled with dread. But, those thoughts needn’t be the thoughts you choose to think. You can think other thoughts about the future event. You can picture yourself laughing and smiling. You can picture yourself chatting to other people, and really enjoying the social situation you will be in. You can keep these other, positive thoughts in the forefront of your mind. After a while, it becomes much easier.

New skills

While you are learning how to manage social anxiety, you may still be anxious, but you are at least going to social situations instead of avoiding them. This is stage two.

Some simple change-of-thought strategies can help. The following is an example of how I took the first step towards reducing anxiety. As soon as you enter the 'dreaded' social event, break down your thoughts. Instead of spiraling into a panic attack or a high anxiety state, look around you: notice where you are and be mindful. Keep looking around you: notice the wallpaper, the lighting, how everything matches, for example. Notice the time, the staff at their jobs, the notice boards or signs, the artwork or exhibition pieces. Become engrossed with what surrounds you. Distract yourself. 

Once you learn these skills, just keep practising the techniques until they become second nature.

Ease in social situations

The thought process above really works, and you can become good at it.  You can become so good at becoming engrossed in your surroundings that you even notice more than other people around you.

As an example, you could become an expert on, let’s say, Irish art in the National Gallery of Art. You might become so engaged and interested that you even attend the free talks given in the gallery. Suddenly, you have an interest in art. You may make friends because of this shared interest. Before you know it, your life is expanding; your choices are opening out. The friends you make there in the art gallery are engaged in other activities; for example, going to the cinema, or walking tours around Dublin, to mention just two. Your social calendar is filling up, and you are not anxious about it.

This is stage three: success! Social situations no longer fill you with dread.

You have gone from being terrified of social events to being almost an accomplished social butterfly! Why? Because you changed your thoughts.

Less anxious

The three stages have been gone through. Stage one of hating social events, and simply not attending them; stage two of going to social events, trying new techniques to reduce anxiety, but not yet being fully used to not panicking; and, finally, stage three, of being so accomplished at breaking down thoughts and being mindful that you become an expert at enjoying social events, and, through it, making friends. This is a win-win formula.

I use these techniques myself, so I know that they can work. Sometimes, making the first move, like enrolling in an anxiety management or mindfulness course, is all it takes to get you launched into a happier, less anxious life. 

There are many social events and situations in the future that you can really enjoy, and that can fill you with delight instead of dread, so take the first step: you will be glad you did.



The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own.

See more from Paula

See more from Paula

Learn more about SUAS

Learn more about SUAS

Paula is a member of SUAS, which is one of the groups we run here in St Patrick's Mental Health Services to ensure the voices and opinions of our service users are at the centre of all we do. You can read more about SUAS here, or watch the video below to find out more.