Hello to all of my ADHD peeps, and loved ones currently living with ADHD. Today we are going to talk about conquering social anxiety with ADHD.
For anyone that doesn’t know what social anxiety is, it is an irrational anxiety that is brought on by social interactions. This can manifest in the form of embarrassment, fear, or even just becoming overly self-conscious.
I want to talk about this because this is an issue that affects many people with ADHD. It is said that 47% of people with ADHD have an anxiety disorder, and 30% of people with ADHD have this manifest in the form of social anxiety. This is compared to the general population which has a total of 19% and 7.1% respectively. Those are huge differences, so we have to make sure that we take care of ourselves.
Personally, I have experienced issues with social anxiety, and it took many years to get over the idea that people were judging me for things that I did or the things that I said. I believe from my time in high school all the way until a couple years into college I have experienced tendencies to believe that people were looking down on me. I had no reason to believe this, and people have been extremely nice to me, but it was something that was underpinning my mind for a very long time.
For people that don’t experience this I will give you an idea of what it feels like on a day-to-day basis. Have you ever fallen down in front of a group of people? You know that feeling where your face turns red and you feel embarrassed because you did something outside of your control, but silently in your mind you believe everyone is making fun of you. That is what it feels like to have social anxiety. Honestly it sucks, but that is why I am writing a post on this because it doesn’t have to suck. Like I said it took me a long time to get over my social anxiety tendencies and of course they come back at times, but we continue on because that is the way that we can improve ourselves and become happier.
As with any recommendation different people are going to have different results. Make sure that you are being kind to yourself. You are not going to get up tomorrow and no longer have this problem it is going to take practice and there are going to be times when it is frustrating.
First we are going to start with changing our mindset. It is very easy to get into a mindset that it is difficult to change so we just become okay with not exposing ourselves to new social interactions. This works, but there are always going to be times where you get put in a situation where you HAVE to talk with other people. Maybe for work or some other situation you are just placed into that you have to converse with people, so this mindset just isn’t going to work. I can promise you that 99% of people are not going to judge you when you are talking with them. It is very easy to get into our own head and start becoming hypercritical of ourselves, but that is not a fair assessment of yourself. You are a unique individual no matter who you are and you need to let that shine. I believe that one of the easiest ways to start talking without judgement is to volunteer. The best part of volunteering in places like The Salvation Army is they allow you to interact with a lot of different people in short spurts and this is something that allows you to practice frequently and it will allow you to get a feel for conversation starters that work and the ones that run into dead ends more often. In volunteer roles like this you also will not see the people you’re conversing with often, if ever again, and the likelihood they’ll remember anything about your previous conversations is slim. The other great thing about volunteering in places like The Salvation Army is the fact that you are going to be around people that are older than you. It is always a lot easier to talk to older people in my personal experiences and this is because a lot of them will lead a lot of the conversation and in a lot of cases they are going to want to know about you because older people love two things in most cases: telling stories and listening to stories. Older people in most cases are also some of the least judgmental when it comes to conversing.
One big thing that is easy to do when you start expanding your social circle is to over share and this is a typical problem that is found in people that have ADHD. One easy trick of this is to make sure that you you are thinking before you are speaking. If it is not something that you would tell your parents or your loved one don’t throw it into a random conversation. It sounds silly, but I can promise you it is easy to overshare when you have ADHD especially if you are someone that has the hyperactivity (impulsivity) tendencies. I know for us it can be difficult to listen to what someone is saying while trying to control anxiety and not overthink what we’re saying and adding on thinking about what you say before you say it can sometimes be too much. So another option is to think about what you can say during a conversation before hand, make a list of good conversation starters and fun facts to share about yourself.
If you are a fidgeter that is okay one really easy tip to keep your fingers or hands moving is to place a paper clip in your hands and flip it around. The reason a paper clip works well is because it doesn’t make any noise and it is something that is small so it doesn’t draw a lot of attention. As you get more comfortable with people, people will start to understand things like fidgeting. The people I sit near in class all know that I fidget, I just tell them to kick me if I start moving my legs around too much because I can promise you you are not the only one that gets bored during a three hour lecture on Cell Biology.
I split this post into two parts so my wife could talk a little bit about social anxiety so now introducing my wife.
Michel requested that I talk about exposure therapy as a way to help overcome social anxiety. For anyone who doesn’t know, exposure therapy is a very commonly used behavioral therapy for treatment of fears and aversions. It is extremely successful and helps people overcome crippling fears of things like snakes and elevators. It works by exposing the individual to their fear in a minor way at first and then as they become comfortable, move up to exposure in more specific ways until confronting the fear itself. For example, a person who is afraid of snakes could be started by viewing pictures of snakes, moving onto watching a video of snakes, to interacting with a rubber snake, and finally going to a pet store and holding a live snake. The same concept can work wonders for social anxiety as well.
Obviously any therapy of this sort is performed by a licensed psychologist to help navigate the process and any feelings that arise throughout, as well as to keep the patient safe. However, the idea behind exposure therapy can be implemented in daily life to help overcome problems you may face. If you have severe social anxiety, it is best to to work with a psychologist who will be able to help you through the therapy, rather than attempt implementing aspects of it on your own. Part of the reason it is successful as a therapy is that the therapist is there with the individual every step of the way and participates with them, showing that it is safe. Going back to the snake example, the therapist would be the first to hold the snake in the pet store (even if they don’t like snakes themselves), showing the individual that they are not afraid and are safe holding the snake, providing the individual with the confidence and assurance to try themselves. This is an important support to have when dealing with a severe issue, so if you are very concerned about your social anxiety please reach out to your primary physician, or if you have a psychiatrist/psychologist established reach out to them.
Anyway, back to ways you can use exposure therapy in your every day life to help overcome more minor social anxiety. First you need to determine what aspects of social interaction make you nervous and uncomfortable and to what extent. Do you hate public speaking, are you like Mia in Princess Diaries where every time you get up in front of a group of people you vomit? (While a fun example this is more severe and something that should be worked through with the help of a therapist). Do you get anxious when you’re in a room without any familiar faces? What about when you’re trying to make new friends? All of these are common problems people face every day, and luckily, with a little work, they can be overcome. You may always be nervous in these situations, nervousness is normal, but you can work to become consistently successful in them.
For the last part of this I will discuss getting to a point where you can have one on one conversations. If public speaking causes you lots of anxiety a good place to start is by yourself. Like they say, practice makes perfect. By knowing what you’re going to say like the back of your hand, your brain has the information in there and is more likely to remember it even if you are extremely nervous. But knowing what you’re going to say doesn’t help prepare you for getting up in front of the audience itself. Taking the idea of exposure therapy, you can start by practicing alone. Set up a practice space, it can be your room, living room, or outside, just set up a space to practice. Although it may feel silly, it can be very beneficial to have an “audience” while practicing by yourself. You can set up a crowd of stuffed animals, empty chairs, or even the flowers in your garden. But having something that you’re talking to will help you get comfortable talking towards an audience. You can also practice looking out at your audience in this situation which can help you feel more comfortable while you’re talking. After you feel great about your inanimate audience, move on to an actual audience of people you’re comfortable with. You can practice in front of your family, some friends, or your partner, but you want to make sure you’re working with someone who can give you supportive feedback on your performance. By practicing in front of people you’re comfortable with you’re reinforcing the act of public speaking in your brain which helps increase feelings of control of the situation which helps decrease anxiety. Other things you can do to help decrease anxiety while actually speaking is focus your attention on someone you know in the audience. For example if you’re giving a presentation for school/work, when you look out at the audience, look at a friend. Focusing your attention on someone you are familiar with and you know won’t judge you helps to distract from worries about the other people in the room. It allows you to look at your audience without freaking yourself out more.
A similar approach can be taken for social interactions where you’re in a room with people you don’t know or are trying to make new friends. One great thing about the internet is the abundance of resources available. You can easily find videos that show how to successfully start a conversation or videos of new people meeting. By watching these you can learn new things you can do to help you be successful in new interpersonal interactions. Our brains learn so much by observing others do things, it really puts the whole “do as I say not as I do” thing to shame. By watching movies, videos, or real people in a park/classroom/bar interact your brain is taking in all of that information to incorporate into your own future actions. But the best way to get better is to practice. This is one area where you really just have to put yourself out there, even if it makes you uncomfortable. You can tackle new interactions easier by creating a go-to list of conversation starters to turn to every time. If you know what to ask to start a conversation it will be that much easier to get started. If you listen and ask questions you can keep the conversation off of you which will help take off the pressure of thinking of what to say as well as cause the other person to think you’re easy to talk to. This will help to create a positive interaction that will be remembered and will make it easier the next time you go to talk to someone new. Like everything practice makes perfect.
Social anxiety is a very real problem that a lot of people experience to varying degrees. But it doesn’t have to control your social life. You can have social anxiety and still have a very good social life and be a great public speaker, you just have to work with yourself. Exposure therapy is one of many ways to begin tackling this problem and I hope some of this discussion can be helpful for you.