Have you ever gone out of your way to dodge small talk? Backed out on a party or gathering last-minute? Avoided speaking up in that meeting or class? I know I have! The truth is, sometimes I am anxious and awkward. I have learned to be OK with that. The thing is, It is OK to be nervous or anxious. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million adults in the U.S. experience social anxiety.
It only becomes problematic when we believe we need to avoid experiences that make us anxious and put us in physical discomfort. Yes, anxiety is absolutely scary. The thought of putting yourself out there subject to judgment makes your heart race, stomach tingle, and your brain race with thoughts of negative evaluation. However, what brain science tells us is we need exposure to these anxiety-provoking experiences to help our brains grow and learn new skills to manage. We can experience anxiety while living rich and meaningful lives. The key is exposure! I know that’s not what you wanted to hear. I don’t like it either. Why would you intentionally seek out the thing that causes you the most discomfort, shame, and pain? I hear you. The answer is, it is the only way for you to grow.
Anxiety affects the part of the brain called the amygdala. This part of our brain takes in sensory information and alerts us to danger. Our amygdala is what cues the fight, flight, or freeze response. It also associates emotions with memories. When we are in situations that cause anxiety, the amygdala becomes activated and causes somatic responses in our bodies. You may be giving a public speech meanwhile you feel your heart racing and your palms sweating. This is because your amygdala is sensing potential danger (possible social shaming or becoming an outcast). While these anxiety-provoking situations can be emotionally and physically uncomfortable, the more exposure you have, the easier it will become. When you push yourself and do things that cause anxious feelings, over time your amygdala will learn those situations are not dangerous, and the intensity of anxious feelings will decrease. It will also allow you the opportunity to practice any coping skills you may be learning. So next time you think about sending that last-minute cancellation text, try to challenge yourself! You may experience some temporary discomfort, but you can only grow from it.