This letter first ran in the Social Anxiety Newsletter/Mailing List.
It's a good description of a non- therapist, who decides to begin running a successful cognitive-behavioral group for people with social anxiety disorder. This group ran very strongly for a number of years.
Hi Dr. Richards,
I wanted to share a little bit about myself and our group with others. The audio therapy series and our group meetings here have helped me change my life in so many ways.
Before I started the audio therapy series, I went to a therapist for a few months and she was helpful in some areas. I read a few books and got some good tips from them, but didn't have a real plan of action on how to address my social anxiety and get over it. The audio therapy not only helped me with my social anxiety, but gave me self esteem, confidence, and a whole new outlook on life.
If you are in an area where a group is currently operating for social anxiety, try taking the first step forward and contact the group leader about joining their next group. I know this is a big step, and you really do need to be determined and ready to overcome your social anxiety before joining a group.
But remember: Everyone else in the group (including the leader in most cases) has social anxiety to some degree (some are more avoidant than others), but they all know what it feels like to have those intense fears going on inside.
The good thing about the therapy group is -- you can go along and sit through the meeting without saying a word to anyone if you want to. You will not be called upon or put on the spot in any way.
I urge everyone to give it a try. You may find it is the first step you take towards overcoming your social anxiety, and you will be on your way to leading a normal and happy life (yes, it really is possible!).
If there is no group operating in your area, try starting one up yourself. When I first started our group here, we only had 3 members, and we met each week in an outdoor park. This went on for about 8 or 9 weeks. We would meet at a designated area, and go over one of the therapy sessions from the audio series and talked a little about the solutions presented.
Our numbers grew, and we finally found a hospital that let us use their conference room to hold our meetings. I will be honest and say I did feel quite a bit of anxiety during those first few meetings, and being a blusher I felt my face was red a lot of the time. I used slow talk and rationally spoke to myself as much as I could, and as the weeks went on, my anxiety became less and less. I still blush from time to time, but I don't really care about it anymore.
Our current group is working on session #8 this week. We listen to one session per week, we read over the handouts and then discuss the daily therapy for that week. There is no pressure and no one is forced to do anything. Some people sit and listen, while others ask questions.
I remind people not to compare themselves to anyone else in the group, and to try and keep an external focus on what is going on around them (not on our internal thoughts and feelings). As we progress with the audio series, we learn more and more techniques to help us stay calm, not only in the meetings, but in our daily life as well.
It is a step by step approach, and we do it nicely and slowly. Most of the members are very surprised at how calm they feel when we start to do the behavioral activities/exercises, and this is because we do it very gently and only take one small step at a time.
For example, a couple of activities we have done in this group already:
Talking one on one with the person who is sitting next to you: We just make small talk and do this as a group.
Another activity we do is "read a paragraph or two from a hand-out in slow-talk to the person next to you". Again, we do it all together so there is no outside pressure from other people looking on.
I always stress that if somebody does not want to participate in an activity at a meeting, they can just say "pass". It does happen sometimes and it is OK, nobody takes any notice of it, we just continue on. I know the behavioral activities/exercises can sound very scary, but you don't do anything unless you want to, and you only do them when you are ready. There is no pressure whatsoever from the leader or other group members. They are always so much easier than what people expect, if they are handled this way.
Eventually, people are able to do introductions, skits, presentations, question taking, assertive role plays, mingling exercises and many other real-life activities. These are all practiced over and over again in the safe environment of a small group of people with social anxiety using a step by step approach. It really does work!
Good luck to everyone working on overcoming their social anxiety today. I have no doubt that you can do it.
Note from Dr. Richards: Wendy ran this group for several years, and because of her motivation and proactivity, she gradually eliminated her own social anxiety, while helping others learn to do the same. For several years, I could not open my inbox without a message from someone in Wendy's group -- every message very grateful that she had started and run this group, and grateful that they were learning to overcome social anxiety, thanks to Wendy's help. Eventually, she felt she had to move on with her own life and focus on her career and family. She positively affected so many people in her area and allowed them to overcome their social anxiety just because she started this group. We are hoping that other people, who have a solid cognitive background (from use of the audio series) will be able to start their own groups in the future.