When we are with other people, we unconsciously exchange signals that have an effect on how safe we feel physically and emotionally. In most social situations, we pick up signals that we are physically safe, but because people are sizing us up, we don’t receive signals of emotional safety.
When expecting to be in a stressfui social situation, pre-establish the links you will need to carry you through. How? Remember a person who is both physically and emotionally safe to be with, which means someone who is not judgemental with you. The presence of such a person activates your parasympathetic nervous system. Built that person’s presence inside, linked to the things that you expect to cause stress in the upcoming social situation.
To do the linking exercise, make a detailed list of what you expect to see, hear, and feel in the situation. Then, item by item, pretend your friend is holding a photo of that situation by their face. Hold that in your mind for a few seconds to link the stressful situation to the calming effect of their face. Then pretend they are talking with you about what is seen in the photo. That links the situation to the safety signal in their voice. And while talking about it, imagine they give you an affectionate hug to link their touch to the situation.
This is powerful because the only way our calm system – the parasympathetic nervous system – is activated is by a person who accepts you completely. Have you ever felt comfortable enough with another person that you felt your guard let down? When you felt your guard let down, your parasympathetic nervous system was activated by their face, voice quality, and body-language/touch.
My book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia is based on research by neuroscientist Stephen Porges. It was Porges who discovered that the parasympathetic nervous system is activated by signals we unconsciously receive from others. The book gives step-by-step details on how to set up and practice the linking exercise. Once the links are established, they keep your parasympathetic system active in the challenging situation. Here is an excerpt from the book on how to deal with social anxiety.
A former fear-of-flying client emailed me the following:
What you taught me did wonders. I have no panic at all. It worked so well that I’m wondering if it can help me with my new job. For the first time I’m a supervisor. When someone asks a question and I don’t know the answer, I get extremely anxious. I feel like I’m in over my head. My boss says I’m doing a good job. But, I feel the same when I’m talking to him. I’ve thought about quitting. But, I moved here to take this job, and I can’t handle moving back.
So far this book has focused on panic. Now let’s look at anxiety. What are some of the differences between panic and anxiety? In panic, a person believes their life is threatened and that escape from the threat is impossible. With anxiety, the threat is not life-threatening. Escape is possible, but it has drawbacks: it may involve compromise or some kind of cost or loss. Fortunately, we can apply the same techniques we use for ending panic to ending anxiety.
When stressed by face-to-face interactions, my client felt an urge to escape. If he had been in a situation where escape was blocked, he would have experienced panic. Since escape was possible in this situation, he did not panic, but he was anxious that he would lose control, the urge to flee would overwhelm him, and he would cut and run. If he did, he would be fired, and his self-esteem would be damaged.
How could we make him comfortable at work? To establish a basis for collaboration, I told him about the system responsible for regulating our arousal — the autonomic nervous system, described in part 2 of this book — and explained how he could now install the alarm attenuation mechanisms that he did not develop in childhood.
In his previous job, my client worked with others at the same level. They frequently exchanged signals that kept things calm. In his new job, he received no calming signals from the employees he supervised. When in control, he was calm. But when he could not immediately answer a question, he felt he was not in control of the situation. As he said, “I feel like I’m in over my head.” Stress hormones kicked in. With no built-in program to activate vagal braking, the urge to escape threatened to overwhelm him.
Dealing with this situation was simple. All we needed to do was build in a psychologically active presence that could activate his parasympathetic nervous system when he was face to face with people who did not provide calming signals. To do that, we needed to find a person in his life whose presence calmed him. He quickly identified someone, an easygoing, nonjudgmental friend. I asked him if he had felt his guard let down when with this friend, an indication of maximum parasympathetic nervous system activation. He said he did. That made her an ideal person to link to his challenges at work.
Together, we started looking for ways to link the calming signals of her face, voice, and touch to his work situations. I asked him to remember being with her. I asked him to imagine that she was holding a photo of one of his employees next to her face. In a few seconds, a link was established between the calming face of his friend and the noncalming face of the employee. This link neutralized the employee’s face as a threat. Then I asked him to imagine talking with his friend about the photo (to link the calming quality of her voice to the challenging situation). Then while talking, I asked him to imagine her giving him a reassuring touch.
For extra protection, we linked her face, voice, and touch to a cartoon of Homer Simpson being unable to answer an employee’s question. We then linked the friend’s qualities to an image of Homer worrying about being in over his head in a new job.
Next, we turned to his boss. We linked the friend’s face, voice, and touch to the boss’s face. Since my client was often afraid of what his boss would say, we took the linking a step further. Instead of imagining her holding a photo of the boss talking, I asked him to imagine she was holding a cell phone playing a video of his boss talking.