How to Stop Avoiding Social Situations

Tips to Stop Avoidance, Escape and the Use of Saftey Behaviors

Stop letting social anxiety make you a prisoner.
Social anxiety can make it hard not to hide. MoMo Productions / Getty Images

Avoidance, escape and safety behaviors are those things you do to try and control anxiety about social and performance situations.

Complete avoidance might include

  • quitting a job; 
  • dropping a class; or
  • not attending a social function

Escape usually means leaving a situation, such as

  • ending a speech early; 
  • hiding in the restroom during a party; or
  • "zoning out" of conversations going on around you

Safety behaviors involve staying in the situation but doing such things as

  • avoiding eye contact;
  • keeping hands out of sight; or
  • speaking softly

These behaviors might make you feel better in the short term, but in the long term they actually make your anxiety worse.

Engaging in these behaviors erodes your self-esteem; over time, you gradually narrow the list of places you feel comfortable going and things you feel comfortable doing.

One of the goals of cognitive-behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder (SAD) is to gradually reduce or eliminate avoidance, escape and safety behaviors.

This is usually done through a process known as "graded in-vivo exposure." "Graded" refers to a gradual process in which you face your least feared situations first. "In-vivo" simply means that the process takes place in the real world rather than in a therapy setting.

The first step of the exposure process is to create a list known as a "fear hierarchy."

This fear hierarchy should contain a list of social and performance situations that you fear, ordered from least anxiety-provoking to most anxiety-provoking.

For example, at the bottom of your list might be "leave the house when a neighbor is outside." At the top of your list you might put "give a speech in front of a large group of people."

Your goal would then be to start at the bottom of your list and try facing each situation without engaging in escape or safety behaviors.

You might be thinking to yourself, "But wait! I need to do those things or people will notice my anxiety" or "I can't look people in the eye, it is too hard for me."

It is true that at first it will feel uncomfortable not to escape or use safety behaviors. That is why it is important to start at the very bottom of your list and gradually build up confidence, and learn that the worst does not happen.

Even if some people do notice your anxiety, they probably will think very little of it or feel sympathetic towards you.

Consider the example of leaving the house when your neighbor is outside. How do you feel being trapped in your house until it is the "right time" to leave?

Although you have successfully avoided the discomfort of facing your neighbor, you have also done damage to your self-esteem and become a prisoner in your home. If you want to break free from these feelings, you will need to gradually face your fears.

When you do leave the house and your neighbor is outside, what do you normally do?

Hurry on your way and try not to make eye contact?

This time, intentionally look in your neighbor's direction and wave or say hello. Although this might seem uncomfortable at first, with practice it will feel more natural.

Although facing feared situations is best done under the guidance of a trained therapist, you can work on these strategies on your own. Remember that the goal is to gradually expose yourself to feared situations without engaging in escape or safety behaviors.

If a particular situation feels too difficult, take a step back in your hierarchy and build confidence. If you are going through a stressful time in your life, accept that you might fall back into old habits and behavior patterns, but that you will be able to rebuild what you had gained.

Sources:

Antony MM, Roth Ledley D, Heimberg RG. Improving outcomes and preventing relapse in cognitive-behavioral therapy. New York: Guilford; 2005.

Antony, MM, Stein, MB. Oxford handbook of anxiety and related disorders. New York: Oxford University Press; 2008.

Clark DA, Beck AT. Cognitive therapy of anxiety disorders: Science and practice. New York: Guilford; 2011.

Hoffman, SG, Otto, MW. Cognitive behavioral therapy for social anxiety disorder. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press; 2008.

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