To help readers cope with these stressful times, TOI has launched Talk it Out, a series under which expert counsellors will answer your mental health queries. This week’s advice comes from clinical psychologist Dr Shwetambara Sabharwal
I am a phobic person. It is really hard for me to even talk in front of someone. I avoid meeting people as much as I can. Often, I start thinking of the clumsiest things. I don’t know how to act in front of someone. Eventually this awful attitude makes me feel anxious and lonely. Please help me get rid of this social phobia.
— Anonymous
This must be so hard to cope with. For a diagnosis of social anxiety or phobia, I would highly recommend proper testing by a licensed clinical psychologist followed by therapy. The prognosis of social anxiety is positive, and it can be overcome and treated. Whether someone likes us or not has not much to do with us, it has everything to do with their own perceptions, complexities and belief systems.
Some tools to cope with anxiety over meeting people are breathing exercises, learning to relax during exposure of the stressor, working on strengthening our self-esteem so that we are able to tone down the weight we put on others’ judgement of ourselves and disputing cognitive errors such as: “everyone should like me”, “no one likes me”, “I’m not good enough” or “the fact that person did not smile at me means that they hate me”. These are irrational and exploring ways of disputing these irrational perceptions, with a cognitive behavioural therapist will help.
I am a 33-year-old designer and retailer. I have my own store. But in the wake of Covid, I am unable to do my work. This has shattered me. Also, I am unable to connect with most people, even in my industry. I get anxious as people have nothing to say than to tell me to start a family, whereas I am not keen on that. They think I have medical issues and am not able to conceive and taunt me. My husband and I are happy and may even want to adopt. I am not mentally prepared to connect to people due to this. I feel stuck. What can I do?
— Anonymous
Let’s break this into three separate concerns: pandemic impacting work, comments from colleagues regarding conceiving and exploring adoption. It is useful to compartmentalise our stressors and deal with them one at a time by specifying what about that issue is most impacting us. The pandemic has jolted our existence. At this point, we can pivot this challenge and make work survive and grow it in plausible ways. Connect with colleagues for work, not emotional and personal conversations and state your boundaries clearly. Family planning is a sensitive issue and your distress at others making unwanted suggestions is understandable. It’s okay for you to communicate your desire to avoid this topic. Adoption requires knowledge of legal procedures, a readiness to work and wait, along with being certain. If this has occurred to you, explore, invest time and energy in making enquiries, enabling decision making.
I am 30 years old. I have been cheated by some people in the past. Due to that I am not able to trust anyone now. I always fear that the other person can cheat or misuse me. My mind tells me to stay away from people. I know that everyone is not the same but I am unable to accept this. I am in depression due to this. Please help.
— Anonymous
Being betrayed or cheated on can lead to such feelings. However, if it is impairing you to this extent then we need to accept and clarify a few things for ourselves. The past is over. Reliving it or being stuck there, is a choice you are making. Allow it to make you wiser and stronger, not fearful or avoidant. Betrayal hurts but our perception of it magnifies it. Keep that in check. Shift focus to the present and how you can make this the most functional and constructive moment. “All or none” thinking is a cognitive error. Check for rationality in your thought of “if it happened once, then it will always happen”. Such thinking makes us dysfunctional. Dispute such thought errors by asking yourself: “Is this a fact or my guess?”
How to cope with social anxiety:
*Practice deep breathing, especially when exposed to stress. Paying attention to breathing can help reduce anxiety, induce calm and take focus away from the threat in the social environment.
*Replace negative thoughts with rational consideration, realising that they’re often based on guesswork. For example, a statement like "nobody will like me" is an irrational assumption. This can help you be more open-minded to explore.
*Face social situations equipped with an intact self-esteem, unattached to how many people or who likes you.
*Let go of the need to control outcomes of social relationships, enjoy the moment of meeting.
*Avoid caffeine, chocolate and soda as they may increase anxiety and get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep can increase anxiety and worsen symptoms of social phobia.

If you need counselling, please contact the following helplines:

Aasra +91 9820466726 (24x7)
Cooj +91 9822562522 (1-7pm, Mon-Fri)
iCall +91 9152987821 (Mon-Sat, 10am-8pm)
Fortis +91 8376804102 (9am-5pm)
Kiran 1800-599-0019 (24x7)
Nimhans 080-4611 0007
Sumaitri +91 9315767849 (2-6.30pm)
Sneha +91 9566027776 (10am-2pm)
Vandrevala Foundation 18602662345, +91 7304599836 (24x7).

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