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Embrace Anxiety & Put It to Work

January 11, 2018

By Mary Crane, the creator of the “100 Things You Need To Know” book series.

If the prospect of walking into an unfamiliar setting like a job fair, interview, or client meeting leaves you soaked in sweat, you’ve likely experienced social anxiety. Don’t let this perfectly normal physical manifestation of the fight-or-flight response keep you from accomplishing your goals. Instead, learn how to recognize anxiety as it develops and then put it to work.


What is social anxiety?

Just as its name implies, social anxiety is the fear that many of us feel when we are required to interact with others … especially those who we don’t know well and who are in a position to judge or evaluate us. People who struggle with social anxiety are often viewed as shy or quiet. Unfortunately, these same individuals may also leave the impression that they are aloof, unfriendly, or disinterested.

What causes social anxiety?

Whenever we encounter a threat—real or perceived—our bodies immediately release adrenaline and cortisol, which allow us to run like crazy or stand our ground and battle. This fight-or-flight response originates in the brain’s amygdala. When given the opportunity, another portion of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex, analyzes each potential threat, determines whether it is actual and significant, and develops an appropriate response.

Now, let’s imagine that you’re a student about to attend your first job fair. When you arrive at the event, your amygdala will become hyper-alert as it attempts to determine whether the environment is safe or filled with danger. It’s at this moment that you are most likely to experience social anxiety. As soon as you encounter a friendly face or engage in a comfortable conversation, your pre-frontal cortex will start to take over. By the time you’ve engaged in three or four pleasant conversations, the job fair will seem far less intimidating and feelings of anxiety should start to dissipate.

How does social anxiety manifest itself?

When experiencing social anxiety, even experienced professionals discover that relatively basic tasks suddenly become quite difficult. I’m quite certain that I’ve introduced myself thousands of times. Yet, a few years ago, after I was summoned to report for jury duty, I became completely tongue-tied when a prosecutor asked me to describe my work. The environment was unfamiliar as well as intimidating.  

Typical physical manifestations of social anxiety include: nervousness; racing heart; blushing; excessive sweating; dry mouth; trembling; and muscle twitching or muscle stiffness.

Given what you now know about social anxiety, how should you prepare for business-social events?

In order to effectively manage anxiety, you must calm your amygdala and help your pre-frontal cortex take control. The following techniques often help:

1. Challenge your thoughts  

When placed in an unfamiliar environment, our brains are primed to focus on negative thoughts. If you consciously challenge these thoughts—ideally long before the event—you can diminish their ability to fuel feelings of anxiety.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s the worst thing that could happen at this event?
  • How likely is it that the worst thing will occur?
  • If the worst thing did occur, what would you do?
  • What would you tell a friend if he/she had the same thought?
  • What would your friend tell you?

2. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness training affects the manner in which different parts of your brain communicate with each other. MRI scans have shown that practicing mindfulness can help shrink the amygdala. As the amygdala becomes smaller, the pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker. According to some research, practicing mindfulness increases your ability to engage in executive thinking and manage the fight-or-flight response. (See T. Ireland, “What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do For Your Brain,” Scientific American (06/12/14).)

When you arrive at the job fair, pull yourself away from the crowd, find a quiet corner, and take several deep, calming breaths.

3. Focus on others

The human brain is incapable of giving 100% attention to two different concepts at the same time. You now know that much of what drives social anxiety is the fear that you’re being judged and might come up short. To the extent that you consciously focus on others, your brain simply becomes less able to worry about how others perceive you. Before long, anxious feelings start to slide away.

When you prepare for a job fair, forget about “selling” yourself. Instead, approach employers with a series of questions that demonstrate your genuine interest in them and their organization. This, by the way, is how you put anxiety to work. To the extent that you use anxiety to focus on others, you will be more successful at establishing and building rapport with the very people who can offer you a position.
   
Post event, how can you make the next business-social event less intimidating?

Immediately after the job fair, identify three things that you did extremely well during the event. Write them down. (Handwriting stimulates portions of the brain that are not activated by keyboarding. In fact, some studies have indicated that students who keyboard throughout class are less likely to remember key content than if writing by hand.) Before you attend another job fair or respond to an interview request, review this list and remind yourself, “The last time I attended a similar event, these three actions really paid off.” Then, focus on consciously repeating those behaviors.

Seek to engage in more face-to-face interactions daily, knowing that every conversation you initiate with a stranger will help make the next job fair or interview less anxiety-producing.

And finally, avoid substances that stimulate anxiety (coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks) or that act as a depressant (alcohol can actually worsen anxiety).


Note: If you experience extreme anxiety—obsessive worry that keeps you from interacting with others—visit your school’s health clinic or your personal physician. Certain health conditions may produce symptoms that are similar to anxiety. And some medications may cause anxiety.

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