Does this sound like you? Social gatherings fill you with dread. Panic starts even before you leave. You cringe at the thought of your own awkwardness, imagining all that could go wrong.
As you get closer to the event, your heart races, your palms sweat. You start to consider excuses for canceling.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses diagnosed in the United State, affecting over 40 million adults or 18% of the population.
Without treatment, anxiety disorders tend to get worse, shrinking your life and forcing you to withdraw from the world. The more you retreat into isolation, the worse your symptoms become. Soon everyday events like ordering food in a restaurant or buying stamps at the post office induce panic. Unfortunately, some folks even turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt manage their anxiety.
While individual therapy can offer relief, studies published by Reuters concluded that group therapy is particularly effective for individuals suffering from social anxiety and suggests that group therapy should be one of the first choices of treatment.
What makes groups so effective? Folks with social anxiety are far more comfortable in the private on-on-one exchanges, the kind which individual therapy provides. In one-on-one exchanges, they don’t experience the anxiety that they do socially. Typically, they report details from high anxiety experiences that happened outside of the therapy office, but the therapist may struggle to understand if the reports are distorted or inaccurate. For example:
- “Was everyone really looking at them?”
- “Was someone really critical of them?“
- "Are they triggering negative responses in others?"
In group therapy, however, therapists witness social anxiety in action and can identify its causes and triggers. For example, the anxiety may be the result of as communication misinterpretations, negative projections, gender issues, or unresolved trauma. Armed with this insight, group therapists can then intervene the moment anxiety appears and help the socially anxious person gain the skills to manage feelings, reduce distortions, and make healthier choices.
Here’s three ways group therapy also helps reduce social anxiety:
1. Group Disrupts Social Isolation
Group therapy ends social isolation by providing new, supportive relationships. Additionally, in group you’ll discover that you are not alone, other people share your fears and concerns. As a result, you develop deeper compassion and empathy for your own and other people’s struggles. The group experience nurtures kinship and fosters social healing.
2. Group Builds Social Skills
Group provides you with a place to practice essential social skills, such as self-expression, boundary setting, conflict management, and progressive emotional communication. And here’s the best part: When your anxiety flares up, the group leader is there to help you manage it and build greater tolerance.
3. Group Recreates Social Settings
Social anxiety requires a social treatment. Group therapy helps you better manage your fears by providing a safe, supportive social environment to process and understand the causes of your anxiety.
Marsha the Martian
Marsha battled social anxiety most of her life. Like many folks that struggle with anxiety, she has a history of social trauma. She remembers how she panicked in elementary school when the teacher called on her. “My face would turn bright red and blotchy. The kids said I was Mars, the red planet. They started calling Marsha the Martian.”
Throughout high school and college she avoided speaking in public, skipped parties, and dodged social gatherings. “I spent most of my time in my dorm room or the library. I missed out on a lot.”
When I suggested Marsha try one of my weekly therapy groups, like most people with social anxiety, she responded negatively. “Groups are firing squads to me. Why would I do that to myself?”
Eventually, she agreed to join one a group. “I was desperate. I have an aunt who doesn’t leave her house. I feared that could happen to me eventually.”
The moment she entered group she noticed a difference. “People were thoughtful and mindful. They really listened. It wasn’t like any group of people that I had experienced.”
Gradually, Marsha started to open up to the group, express her fears and concerns. Rather the impatience or criticism she expected, the group responded with warmth and affection.
“My friends started to notice a change in me. I was more expressive, more outspoken. I wasn’t afraid to disagree or address a conflict. Group gave me the skills I needed. At work events, I even became an expert mingler."