Dear Dr. Michelle:
I’ve always been a little nervous around people, but I’m 37 years old and I feel like I should have grown out of this problem. When I need to introduce myself or speak in a group, I get anxious, and my face turns bright red. I don’t understand it. It’s not rational and it really bugs me. What can I do?
I appreciate your plight and glad you thought to reach out. I can understand why you would expect yourself to naturally grow out of being anxious and nervous. Some of what you will want to address is managing your own expectations.
Let me start by encouraging you to keep your anxiety in perspective. If it is not getting in the way of your ability to maintain a job, have a few important relationships, or perform daily living activities (dressing, feeding, bathing), your nervousness is simply an annoyance and inconvenience rather than a debilitation.
Assess Your Expectations
Spend a few minutes evaluating who is putting pressure on you to be more relaxed. Most likely your expectation is self-imposed and if this is the case, beware of your own self-judgement. Most people understand what it feels like to be anxious and uncomfortable. As such, people generally won’t ascribe the same negative thoughts or feelings about your anxiety that you are putting on yourself. Even if you can take comfort in this point, I understand that you would still like to try and change your experience.
Regarding your expectations, the more you expect of yourself and fail to meet your expectations, the more pressure you will feel. When it comes to anxiety, self-imposed pressure to perform will actually increase your nervousness.
The way to change this cycle might seem counterintuitive: when you are approaching a social situation that leads to feeling anxious, instead of telling yourself not to be nervous, tell yourself that you will be nervous and that it is okay. Take it a step further and tell yourself how you are going to display your anxiety and then show it the way you choose. In your case, I would recommend that you choose to show your anxiety by getting red in your face, since that is one of the physiological reactions that seems to be frustrating you the most, and it is the one reaction that you have the least control over.
Be in Control of Your Anxiety
The trick is to teach yourself to be in control of your own anxiety and to practice being in control. By choosing to be anxious and nervous, you will lower your anxiety about not performing the way you are expecting, and you will naturally have less to be anxious about.
It will take time and practice before you see a long-term change. However, learning to control your thoughts about your situation will lead to a change in your thoughts, which will change your feelings, which will change your physiology.
Another important element to addressing anxiety is exposure. Expose yourself to situations that create your anxiety so that you can practice taking control of it as outlined above.
When it comes to exposure therapy, it’s important to start small and increase the exposure over time. Estimate how many times a week you are in an anxious situation and find a way to increase that by one more situation per week. Do this for several weeks and then continue to increase those situations by one every 2-3 weeks. If you feel that increasing your exposure is too much to handle, then back it down. Just keep in mind that you do need to feel discomfort for exposure to work effectively. You want to find a balance between increasing your discomfort, without creating so much discomfort that you become debilitated. This is much like building a muscle – you need to stress the muscle a little bit at a time without stressing it out so much that you pull it.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
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