By Rachel Grunwell
Social anxiety is something we all experience. It's actually normal. But it can be problematic when it escalates into panic attacks or phobias and holds us back.
So says Dr Eric Goodman, author of the book Social Courage. This is a guide on how to cope and thrive with social anxiety.
Speaking via Skype from California, Dr Goodman beams into my New Zealand home. He is down-to-earth, relatable and reassuring. He tells me his book is written mostly for teens and adults. I recommend parents should read this to help kids navigate lots of tricky and prickly emotions.
I tell him that while reading Social Courage, I realised so many situations when I had felt anxious. "Do many people tell you this?" I ask.
He remarks that only psychopaths never experience social anxiety. "Or if you are a paragon of social sophistication like James Bond," he quips.
So, I'm not James Bond and thank God I'm not a psychopath. Phew.
Dr Goodman says we all feel scary thoughts, shame, awkwardness, rejection, failure, embarrassment. We all sometimes feel like an outcast or inept.
Along with these emotions, we can sweat, blush, get a racing-heart or feel numbness.
For instance, it is normal to feel anxious if you are going to a party where you don't know anyone, or about to do a speech.
These feelings do not mean we are a failure. It's all about how we view that "brain noise".
Dr Goodman believes feeling a constant pressure to be perfect does not help. He also believes social media is driving social anxiety statistics higher.
"A lot of people are staring at their devices rather than at each other," he says.
He advises we can't change thoughts, but we can change our relationship with our thoughts. Part of this is analysing when feelings are not facts.
He recommends "accepting what you can't change. Change what you can". For example, we can work on changing our sleep, nutrition, avoiding substance abuse and using techniques like mindfulness.
He recommends learning to live with "social grey areas" too. What he means is that things are not always going to be black or white. It's okay to allow events in life to be "good enough" rather than "perfect or awful".
He says you can't cure social anxiety; you can work on your ability to live with it.
For example, you may be anxious about public speaking. So a great way to get better with this might be to have a goal to do this more. You might also do a course to become more skilful, for instance.
"Just turn problems into goals," he says.
He says anxiety can be on a spectrum. So, anything from "feeling mild jitters" to feeling terrifying panic attacks.
He explains what it can be like for someone to experience a panic attack. "They're hyperventilating and feeling like they're going to pass out. They want to flee the situation.
It's that rollercoaster ride feeling in their body, but they are just in-line at the grocery store."
• Rachel Grunwell is an award-winning writer, wellness expert, PT and yoga teacher. She teaches mindfulness to corporates. She also coaches private clients.