Ep 141: Getting Comfortable with Anxiety

Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to Be Yourself, clues us in on what might be triggering your teen’s anxiety and perfectionism--and what you can do to help them overcome those and feel comfortable being themselves!

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Full show notes

The high school social atmosphere is pretty terrifying. You might remember the feeling of your heart beating against your chest as you asked a table full of kids if you could sit with them, or the way you got tongue tied trying to talk to your crush in the hallway. As stressful as it is, it tends to pass in time as kids mature. For many teens, this is just a part of growing up.

But for some, social anxiety is a major challenge that keeps them from finding friends and blossoming into confident adults. Too often, these teens let their social anxiety rule their lives. They flee any kind of challenging social interaction, falling into a pattern of avoidance. They never learn to challenge their fears and live in their comfort zones.

Today, we’re talking to a social anxiety expert to learn how we can help teens break this cycle. Our guest is Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, author of How to be Yourself: Silence your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. Dr. Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist and faculty member at the Boston University Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. She’s also the original host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast, which has been downloaded over 15 million times on Itunes.

Dr. Hendriksen has spent years studying social anxiety, and she’s here to share all her expert knowledge with you today. In our interview, we cover what’s really going on in teen’s heads when they’re overwhelmed by social situations. We also get into all the wrong ways teens try to deal with social anxiety, and break down healthier methods for teens to shed the inhibitions that hold them back.

The Psychology of Social Anxiety

We all know what social anxiety feels like. But what’s going on in our brains when we’re getting butterflies in our stomach? And how is a socially anxious teenage mind different from that of an adult ? Ellen and I discuss how teenagers have prefrontal cortexes that have yet to fully develop, meaning their rationality can sometimes be lacking. Stressful social situations are instead processed in their amygdala, a part of the brain that regulates emotion. This means that teens are prone to think that a slight social mess-up is a life-ruining disaster.

Dr. Hendriksen clarifies the difference between someone with a healthy amount of nerves and someone who might have an anxiety disorder. If social anxiety is a metaphorical fire, she describes the brain’s healthy response as “sending a fire truck” to put it out. For those who are more prone to being overcome with anxiety, she compares the brain’s response as a “man with a bicycle and a bucket of water.” It still works, it’s just slower. These people take more time to calm their nerves and find themselves seriously shook when they feel socially inept.

Interestingly, Ellen goes on to explain how social anxiety is really a fear of being “revealed.” Those who grapple with heavy anxiety over talking to strangers or being vulnerable with others often believe that there’s something about them that is wrong or insufficient. Of course, this isn’t true, but it can certainly feel true! For a lot of teens, this feeling is linked to their appearance–maybe they’re self-conscious about their acne or compare their body to those of their peers. In our interview, Dr. Hendriksen and I discuss other ways teens tend to be insecure and how this causes them difficulty in social situations.

So how can we help teens who let their social anxiety run their lives? Before we can talk about what we should do, Ellen explains behavior that we shouldn’t encourage, like avoidance, perfectionism, and what she calls “safety behaviors.”

How Not to Handle Social Anxiety

There are a lot of ways that teens tend to cope with social anxiety that only lead them further down an anxious rabbit hole. The most typical behavior, Ellen says, is avoidance. When situations make teenagers anxious, the quickest and most rewarding solution is to just get out of there. Dr. Hendriksen explains how this only leads to more anxiety down the line, as teens never learn how to deal with the triggers they’re faced with everyday.

In addition, some people develop “safety behaviors”, or methods of shielding themselves from their anxieties. For a lot of socially anxious teens, walking around with headphones is a common safety behavior–it restricts them from talking to anyone, and, in their minds, saves them from embarrassing themselves. However, this behavior only keeps them from making any new friends at all, and in fact sends the message that they’re uninterested in anyone, leaving them to remain on the outskirts.

Another problematic tendency teens adopt to try and remedy their anxiety is perfectionism, says Dr. Hendriksen. In order to try and become less insecure, they set certain labels or goals they want to reach. They adopt an attitude of all or nothing–they have to be the prettiest, the funniest, and the coolest, or they’re not worthy of having friends at all. But then they find themselves feeling ashamed when they can’t meet their own standards, says Ellen. And when they feel bad, they strive for their high standards to “fix” themselves, only to fall into a cycle.

If these mechanisms only lead to disaster, what can we do to help kids beat their anxiety for the long term?

Healthy Ways to Work on Social Stress

Thankfully, Dr. Hendriksen has plenty of methods for dealing with social anxiety that are actually effective . One very powerful practice is cognitive restructuring. This entails challenging the natural, irrational assumptions of an anxious brain. Those with social anxiety might assume that talking to strangers will go horribly wrong, that they’ll be called names and the whole world will explode.

The first step of cognitive restructuring is narrowing down what it is you’re afraid of. Anxiety tends to be vague, Ellen explains. Teens might have generalized fears of public speaking, but what is it exactly that they fear will happen?

Let’s say your teen afraid that the whole crowd will laugh at them. The next step, says Dr. Hendriksen, is to help them evaluate just how statistically likely it is that their fear will occur. Have people laughed at them during a speech before? How often does that really happen? And if they still think their fear is likely to unfold in front of them, have them ask themselves how bad it would be if their fear did come true. Yes, they would be embarrassed, but chances are, the people in the room would forget about their speech by the next day and life would go on as normal.

In addition to cognitive restructuring, Dr. Hendriksen emphasizes the importance of breaking the cycle of avoidance. Teens need to breach their comfort zones, she says, in order to truly leave their anxiety in the dust. When they face their fears, their brains gather data to understand just how greatly they overestimated the danger. They can dive back in with less fear when they’re challenged again. For socially anxious teens, going up to a group of strangers might seem like the most frightening thing in the world, but it will give them the courage to be confident the next time around.

In the Episode…..

Ellen was lovely to speak to this week! Along with the topics above, we discuss:
  • How social anxiety can actually be good sometimes
  • Why introversion isn’t necessarily linked to social anxiety
  • How self compassion is a better alternative to self esteem
  • Why we need to evaluate how we look at friendship
Social anxiety is a serious problem for some teens, but with Ellen’s advice, we can help teens ditch their fears and live their best lives. If you want to check out more of Ellen’s work, you can find her Ellenhendriksen.com, where she’s launching video classes very soon and also has a weekly newsletter. As always, don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week.

Although it’s hard to raise teens who think critically, Charlan’s advice can show us where to start! I had a blast interviewing Charlan and I hope you enjoy the talk as much as I did. Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!

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Ep 141: Getting Comfortable with Anxiety
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