Suddenly your hands are sweaty. Your throat is dry, your hands and legs are starting to shake and your brain is working at warp speed. You have a meeting in 10 minutes and the only thing you can think about is: “What if I don’t make it?” And then you’re caught in such state of anxiety there’s no escape.
At its worst, shyness is characterized by an exaggerated fear of situations in which speaking or being in front of the public is required. It’s also directly associated with situations in which people have to perform at a high level. Be it speaking to strangers, flirting, presenting a project, and the million other occasions in which we interact with other – there we are. Shy.
The issue can be so debilitating that many executives come to SOAP for help with their fear of public speaking and the insecurity that overtakes them in decisive moments.
But, clearly, this isn’t just a problem in the business world. People are shy everywhere, at every social and professional level. And the problem can seriously interfere with feeling comfortable in all kinds of situations.
Social phobia (not the same as introversion) is characterized by a distorted perception of experience and by irrational, persistent and intense fear of certain social or performance situations. People with social phobia usually have negative thoughts that diminish their sense of power and their perception of their level of competence in interpersonal situations. Phobics don’t believe themselves capable of achieving anything, and they’re also terrified of being reprimanded for failure.
The most common types of of social phobia are:
Generalized Social Anxiety Disorder: the fear of any social communication or relationship.
Specific Social Anxiety Disorder: only occurring in certain situations (like public speaking).
Social phobia is such a powerful influence on how we see ourselves and others that even compliments can be perceived as lies. At the unconscious level always lurks the false idea that we’ve made mistakes (that could be considered humiliating).
Exposure to the feared social situation can cause an overwhelming anxiety that in extreme cases can become panic attacks. So the person susceptible to panic tries hard to avoid these situations. And when stuck in the middle of one, the fearful person can expect to find it painful. It’s also very hard for the fearful person to communicate needs in a clear and elegant way.
It is important to mention here, though, that it’s totally normal to be anxious before making a speech! Actors thrive on these jitters before going on. But somebody with Social Anxiety Disorder will probably be worried for weeks before the fated date and may even get sick so as not to have to go to the event. In some cases, people with SAD can start to shake so much that they can barely speak.
There are many causes for Social Anxiety Disorder. The research tells us that about 30% of cases can be attributed to genetics and the other 70% can arise out of experiences in extremely embarrassing situations. These situations have led to the belief that we must make a good impression or be rejected.
The well-known “bullying” experience (unforgettable and painful); an exaggerated standard for perfection; overprotection and/or isolation can cause more anxiety than necessary in children. In extreme cases, these can turn into traumas that carry over into adult life.
Also, as the over-high “standard for perfection” can get more intense every day, the fear of being embarrassed grows too. Many of us tend to put too much pressure on ourselves and just can’t admit mistakes. But this high level of self-imposed demand can in turn lead to intense anxiety. The main fear in Social Phobia is that of being the center of attention and having one’s own weaknesses exposed and so being considered incompetent and unworthy.
For the more serious cases there are intensive treatments that range from social skills training to cognitive restructuring.
The less serious conditions – wherein the fear of being exposed surfaces at only certain times, public speaking times for example – are easier to overcome since being able to speak easily in public can be learned and controlled.
First, if you’re in front of an audience at a decisive moment, do not think about what your audience may think of you. Just be yourself and try to genuinely connect and share information in the same way you chat with friends and family.
Second, try to be aware of the symptoms your body may be showing you. If you notice you have sweaty hands, a trembling voice and a heart beating faster than normal, start breathing in and out deeply and slowly, sit down and work on yourself to take control of the situation.
Third, try to control those harmful thoughts that come so automatically and replace them with positive ones. Then make sure you externalize the good thoughts. Say it out loud: “I CAN get through this.” A study done with 30 young people and 31 adults showed that the simple act of speaking can improve task performance.
Fourth, study the content of your presentation. This is one of the biggest secrets to a calm and even-tempered presentation. Master your subject. Make sure you’ve memorized the logic behind the presentation. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by not being prepared! Rehearse your talk with people you trust. Record yourself and watch your own performance so you can see what needs to be improved.
But, look, if you suspect you have Generalized Social Anxiety Disorder, you should talk to a doctor or a professional who can help you so that your quality of life isn’t harmed by your anxieties.
And if your anxiety problem is more event-related than free-floating, we can help you! Take a look at our “Free Downloads,” where you can find important techniques to help you give successful presentations, feel confident and in turn get the confidence of your audiences.