It’s been a while since the last time I wrote. Lots has happened. I have written before how I was seeing a therapist for social anxiety in the Centre for Mental Health Research at the University of Waterloo. This spring and summer, she provided me with the opportunity to be part of a social anxiety therapy group that the Centre had put on. I have since completed this group and it has certainly helped me shed another layer of my social anxiety off.
The group consisted of weekly sessions held for a couple of hours each over a period of about two and a half months. Each session was dedicated to learning a certain technique to reducing social anxiety through discussion and exercises. For example, at one session, each of us had to improvise on a topic of our choice in front of the rest of the group, while being recorded. At the end, we watched each of the recordings and talked about them. The idea here was to see how other people viewed us when we talked to see if we would be as negatively perceived as our anxiety was telling us. While I did find this exercise helpful, a few other sessions do stick out in my mind as being the most beneficial to me.
These couple of sessions involved us doing behavioural experiments as a group. I’ve already talked about on my blog how my therapist gave the suggestion of doing behavioural experiments and how I had been practising them to reduce anxiety. Now, however, we were going to be doing them as a group. In one of the sessions, we would be going outside and walking through campus. Only we wouldn’t just be casually walking, we would be walking in single file. We would observe how the people we encountered would react to this behaviour. Would they stop in their tracks and stare at us? Would vehicles slow down? Would people make fun of us? We jotted down such possible outcomes before we did the experiment. One important point about the experiment was that whatever we reported on when we returned had to be evidence that would stand up in court. It wouldn’t be enough to say something like “People didn’t like what we did”, but we had to report on the actions of other people, such as consistent staring for several seconds.
We did the experiment and, overall, it went all right. Most people that I saw never really looked at us. Only a handful looked at us and few of them actually stared. Vehicles that passed us didn’t slow down. I thought it went better than I initially thought it would. I was anxious throughout it all, but it did help that I was with others so that if I did appear foolish or whatever to others, at least I wouldn’t be alone.
At another session we did another behavioural experiment while walking through campus. Instead of walking in single file, however, this time we would be waving and saying “Hey!” or “Hi!” enthusiastically to strangers that we saw. Again, there were few negative responses, and a lot of people we encountered actually said “Hi” back. During this same walk, we also stood around in a circle and sang Happy Birthday to three people in the circle, even though it was no one’s birthday. My anxiety spiked during this activity, and there was no way that I would’ve done this on my own. But I had to go along with the group. I prepared myself for bizarre looks, people laughing, etc. Yet no one did. A few people looked and smiled, but that was all that happened.
Doing such behavioural experiments in a group really encouraged me to try more behavioural experiments on my own. I felt the group helped normalize such behaviour and made me feel less weird and less scared to do more on my own. I carried out more conversations with others and introduced myself to more new people.
Yet at another session, we continued carried out behavioural experiments while walking around campus. This time, however, we would not be doing them in sync. Rather, we would be separating with each of us doing a couple of experiments and then gathering together again after twenty or so minutes. Before we ventured out, we were given a list of possible things to try. Some of them were tying a string around a piece of fruit and walking it, skipping around, and asking to go to the front of a lineup. I decided on the activities that were to stand around and point up at the sky for five minutes and to complement a stranger. I managed to accomplish the first without any major problem. People passed me, some looked at me, but not in a funny way, and no one said anything or laughed as I held my arm up in the air pointing at the sky with my index finger. Complementing a stranger, however, took greater guts. This was mostly because it was something that had to involve another person and since people weren’t exactly standing still, no opportunity allowed for much hesitation. I finally did manage to do it. I said to a passing girl, “You have beautiful hair”, to which she replied, “Thank you”. I was the last one back to join the group, but I was glad to have accomplished both experiments successfully.
I even did a couple of these activities outside of the therapy sessions. Right before the next session, I decided to try skipping around and then complementing more girls I didn’t know. I first attempted skipping where there weren’t a lot of people around as a kind of warm up and then I did it in the middle of campus where there were a lot more students walking by. No one reacted at all to my skipping; it was like I didn’t exist. As for complementing more girls, again I found myself hesitating a lot, but at the end I managed to complement three girls in a row on their hair and clothes. Each time I received a smile or a thank you.
The therapy group session has definitely challenged me in surprising ways, and I look forward to using the new techniques to combat anxiety I learned there. Indeed, it inspired me to do something I’ve never done before this past week, which I’ll tell about in my next post.