Face your Fears!


It never fails. During the months of Fall my inbox becomes flooded with fear and worry related questions and concerns. It’s such a prominent issue that my desk becomes the permanent residence for all my books, tools, and resources pertaining to the management of anxieties. For a while I was puzzled by this influx. However, after much analysis I noticed a common trend. Here are just a few examples of the types of concerns people would write to me about:

· A mother in distress over the inability to afford the “it” items she believes her children need in order to fit-in with the other students.

· The sixth grader who sits alone at lunch and recess due to worries that no one would like (befriend) them

· The parent who persistently thinks they’re a failure and struggles to concentrate while at work because they anticipate the difficulty in balancing work demands while attending to the children’s extracurricular activities.

· The college student who fails to attend their classes due to the fear of answering a question incorrectly or speaking publicly.

Consistent among all these examples is the manifestation of social anxiety. Social anxiety is very common mental health difficulty. It is characterized by a significant level of distress initiated by exposure or anticipation to certain types of social or performance situations. More specifically, social anxieties can include: making excessive social comparisons, holding unreasonable expectations regarding one’s social life/interactions, aiming for perfectionism (not allowing for mistakes), and social phobia. It becomes significant and a cause for concern when it impedes on the individual’s ability to complete important tasks and/or brings impairment to their day-to-day functioning. Frequent signs and symptoms can be identified on various levels, for instance:

  • Physically: Sleep disturbances; weight changes; headaches; fatigue; excessive sweating; racing/rapid heartbeat.
  • Mentally: Excessive worry and/or obsession with school/work performance, perfectionism, social interactions etc.
  • Emotionally: Feeling sad, frustrated, disappointed, fearful, ashamed, and/or embarrassed with social or performance situations.
  • Behaviourally: Avoidance of related activities (i.e. public speaking, spending time with family and friends); procrastination due to fear of not being “perfect”; working extra hard to complete tasks to prevent mistakes; freezing in social situations.

Given how paralyzing and debilitating social anxiety can be, it is important to learn how to cope and treat it. If you believe that you may be struggling with social anxiety it is essential that you first speak to your primary healthcare provider. This allows them to do a thorough assessment, make a diagnosis, and provide individualized treatment recommendations. A frequent recommendation is to meet with a professional counsellor/therapist who would help you develop important strategies and skills to cope with the anxiety.

As a Registered Psychotherapist there are several techniques and interventions that I utilize to help my clients manage their social fears and anxieties. One such technique is the following simple acronym (FACE):

F– Flag feelings. Ask yourself: What emotions am I experiencing? Where in my body do I feel the anxiety? How is my body responding in the moment? Your answers can provide clues and direction on ways to relax and calm down (i.e. Deep breathing, mindfulness/grounding exercises, sitting in a quiet space, going for a walk, etc.)

A– Assess Actions and Attitudes. Reflect on whether you are avoiding particular places, people, and things, due to social fears. Identify what you are saying to yourself to contribute to the fear. What are my expectations? Then challenge these thoughts by asking yourself: Is there evidence for my fear? How realistic are my worries?

C– Cope using Skills and Strengths. Develop a coping plan to deal with fears worst case scenario. Consider what tools, abilities, resources, and supports, are available that can help you manage the feared social situation. Identify previous experiences where you successfully overcame the fear…What was useful in those situations? What were your strengths?

E– Experiment with Exposure. If it is safe to do so try to gradually expose yourself to the feared social situation. It’s important to remember that avoidance can perpetuate and strengthen your anxiety. Subsequently, plan to purposely and progressively experiment with your ability to manage the situation. If there is a reason you may not be able to physically/directly expose yourself to the situation you may want to consider role playing, imagining, or envisioning yourself in that situation conquering the anxiety it elicits.

Ultimately, remember to take your time and practice self-care as you learn to face your social worries and anxieties. Last but definitely not least, don’t forget to recognize and reward yourself whenever you experience success. If however you find that you are unable to cope with and/or are experiencing great distress caused by your social anxieties please seek professional support. Your mental health is vital to your overall well-being and reaching out is an act of bravery and self-care!