Going to the gym to workout for many people is a welcome relief, a chance to unwind, and take the edge off. But what if going to the gym and being around others actually works in reverse and causes tension, fear, and anxiety? It could be a case of social anxiety disorder.
Those who have intense and persistent fears of social situations that include interacting with others are likely to avoid gyms, bootcamps, and group classes. After all, if you have a powerful, self-focused belief that you will be negatively judged and evaluated by others, like a mind-reader who “knows” that others are judging you poorly (even when they aren’t), why in the world would you place yourself in that type of situation?
It’s tough for the 7% of the population that struggle with social anxiety to be seen as shy, quiet, inhibited, unfriendly and aloof. In fact, they want to be friendly, part of the group and interact with others. They just believe they can’t. That’s what the third largest mental health problem in the world today, social anxiety, does – the beliefs that cause social anxiety create symptoms of nervousness, racing heart, sweating, trembling, twitching muscles, dry mouth, and more. Not exactly the kind of feelings one can easily put aside in order to enjoy the camaraderie of a group exercise class.
Being introduced to others, being the center of attention, speaking up in class, giving a presentation at work or school, these are some of the triggering events that lead to irrational, erroneous beliefs that one is being judged poorly, negatively and critically. It’s the thought, not the event, that causes social anxiety.
Not sure that what you have is social anxiety? There are many “tests” on the web that can help you decide. One you might want to look at is this.
Here’s how it all works. A “triggering event” occurs, such as walking into a crowed gym. An individual who suffers with social anxiety thinks, erroneously, “Everyone is looking at me and thinks I’m an idiot who can’t really work out.” This leads to anxiety, fear, intense self-consciousness and physical symptom of anxiety described above – feeling an adrenaline rush. This in turn leads to behaviors or reactions that include leaving, hiding in the corner, going into the locker room and dreading coming out and avoiding eye contact.
That’s the pattern of unfolding social anxiety. A triggering event followed by a self-focused, negative thought about that event, followed by anxious feelings and socially inappropriate behaviors. It’s never the event, but always the thoughts about the event that create anxiety and related reactions. Keep that in mind and you’ll begin to understand the cause and the way to overcome this crippling experience. Change what you think and you change what you feel. Change the way you filter reality so that the lens you look through distorts it less, and you’ll likely free yourself up from social anxiety.
Perhaps one lens is “all or nothing thinking.” You might erroneously believe that people are always staring at you and judging you negatively. Or you might think that you can never talk with others without feeling self-conscious or awkward, never say the right thing. It’s black and white.
Or perhaps another of your filters is “jumping to conclusions.” When you are talking with someone and they look away for a moment, you automatically assume they think you are stupid and are bored with you.
A third cognitive distortion is “should or demand.” When someone reacts to you in a way you think is negative, you tell yourself he/she “MUST” not react this way, and you cannot tolerate it.
Social anxiety, as you can now see, comes from thoughts that you are or will be be judged poorly. But, what if you respected yourself regardless of how others may, or may not, think of you? What if your self-esteem was unconditional? That is, your view of yourself was not anchored in what others think of you? You would consider yourself worthwhile even if others don’t. You’d be more social, less fearful, willing to take greater risks, and enjoy life more than you do when suffering social anxiety. When you take your self and your worth out of judgments – yours or others – you will always feel better.
So here are the steps to take to being to feel better and reduce your social anxiety.
- Catch those thoughts that create your social anxiety. Look at the mental filters you use, the thoughts that continue to ruminate in your mind after an event takes place. Listen to the beliefs you hold about others, situations you are in, your self-worth.
- Challenge those thoughts. Are your thoughts true, helpful, do they inspire you to enjoy social situations or fear them? Are your thoughts necessary to hold onto? Are your thoughts kind to you? As you understand that your thoughts are erroneous, it’ll become easier to challenge them. Drill down deeply so as to really see how irrational some of the beliefs you hold really are.
- Change your beliefs. Maybe the other person is NOT judging you. And, here’s the varsity belief, the one to aspire to and holding on to. Who says that others MUST judge you favorably in the first place? What others think about you is none of your business. It doesn’t define you (only you define you) and probably tells you more about them than about you.
That’s the cognitive behavior coaching approach – catch, challenge and change. When you replace your erroneous thoughts with rational, accurate, logical and positive thoughts, there is no way that you’ll create anxiety for yourself. After all, the opposite of anxiety, serenity, comes with believing everything’s fine. And after all, it is, isn’t it?