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Monday, July 19, 2010

Depression is Different from Social Anxiety

Dear A. B.

I'm not sure I know what you mean by fear being free floating and unattached.

I have a fear of people in social settings. It becomes difficult to start or carry on a conversation with someone in these settings. I go dumb. So much information coming in from all directions. The anxiety builds. I seek quiet corners where then I might become a listener rather than a participant. I fight to remain physically present (not run off) and tolerate it till the event is over. The next day is an emotional hangover... So much energy spent.

This leads to a lot of anger at myself... Into depression for days to a couple weeks. When I'm able to remind myself to keep it simple and use minds tricks to bring me back to present moment living, then I'm able to regain my well being.

But, social settings, I'd just rather avoid. They're not pleasant.

Dear A.M.

Free floating fear is a feeling of anxiety where you can’t account for the reason you are feeling anxious. Social anxiety is the fear and anxiety you get when you are in a group situation and are supposed to interact with people.

Social anxiety can never be cured per se because the afraid-of-people neural patterns you have built never disappear. But just because you still have old fearful neural patterns doesn’t mean you have to use them. You can replace the old ones and use new and improved neural patterns of social skills instead of the fearful ones when they get triggered.

Certainly you can improve your social skills so that social interactions are not painful all the time. Even I sometimes get self-focused in a group--even in a family group--and feel that I'm not as loving a person as I would like to be. My old “I feel unworthy in some way” neural patterns might pop up.

Whenever we feel unworthy and try to shake it off and pretend we're not feeling that way, we don't make much progress. Instead, we can just recognize that an old pattern has been triggered, feel our discomfort, use a bit of cognitive behavior on ourselves by telling ourselves that we are an okay person doing our best and what we are feeling is old habitual neural patterns that will always be there lurking in the background, but we can move forward and leave them behind with a little effort and practice.

You can leave a group if you suddenly become uncomfortable and give yourself space to regroup yourself. Find some other person who will give you the time of day or maybe one who also seems less socially adept, and have a one-on-one small chat. Even if you end up talking to the doorman at some party, it is still a social interaction with another human being and worthwhile practice for you.

Our brain and its product, our mind, is a defense mechanism and naturally paranoid on our behalf. We have to move forward from its warnings that we are failing at something, and, instead, take stock of what we do have going for us that works.

Most of us can put a sentence or two together that makes sense, comment on something going on locally, or at the party or find something pleasant to say about someone or ask them something about themselves and be a good listener.

I always suggest reading Dale Carnegie's book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” as a good place to start improving our social skills. It does take practice. Also I suggest a course in public speaking via Toastmaster's International which is in most cities and small towns and very inexpensive. Don't give up. You just have to go back to your scared childhood and pick up the skills you didn't pick up then. It can be done.

Depression that is brought on by thinking about your failure in social skills is different from the social anxiety itself. Use the mind tricks for depression. Depression is nobody's business but your own and you have to work it out away from other people and then rejoin them when you are in a better mood rather than inflicting your sadness and despair on others. A. B. Curtiss

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