Spring, you say? Why spring? Is it because of a sudden rush of anxiety-inducing madmen on the city streets, or a scary hike in the number of news stories about killer bees? No – spring is… conference season. And as a clinical hypnotherapist in London and Winchester, I know that for people with anxiety disorders, conference season and its endless “opportunities for networking” can spell eight weeks of distress.
Social anxiety affects millions of people. You’ll know if you’re one of them if you avoid or dread social situations. While a great many people are very much at home chatting to friends and strangers, a significant portion of us are less so. Much less so in some cases – to the point where they make up excuses so that they don’t have to drink with colleagues after work, or they adopt a mouth-shut, eyes glued to the agenda approach during staff meetings.
If you’ve never been to a conference and are affected by social anxiety, it’s easy to imagine how difficult it might be. Think thousands of people, most of them complete strangers, and the lion’s share of them there to network. There’s a pressure to perform, too, as the whole idea is to come home with new contacts and leads. If your idea of a top night out involves locking the front door and putting a DVD on, conferences may well be your idea of hell.
50 per cent of us are introverts
What might surprise you is that up to 50 per cent of people are introverts, so I can pretty much guarantee that half the people in the conference won’t exactly be cock-a-hoop about being there either. That’s worth thinking about: take comfort in it. Knowing that you’re not the sole person there who’s finding it all pretty awkward may help. When people come to see me about hypnotherapy for confidence, they’re usually very surprised to hear this.
Introverts are naturally predisposed to avoid situations in which they’re obliged to meet people and mingle. Mindfulness can really help – you’ll have read a lot about mindfulness in the past few years and if it all seems a bit baffling then one interpretation is that it encourages/enables you to take a step back and see things as they really are. In conference terms, it can help you stop focusing on yourself being uncomfortable in a room (where everyone else is staring at you wondering when you’re going to enthral them with your wisdom); with mindfulness, you can pause and see the bigger picture. Namely that there are lots of other people just trying to do their thing, many of them not really enjoying it, and literally none of them expecting you to ‘perform’ for them. It will give you a bit of perspective – and a bit of headspace.
Tips like “just go and throw yourself into it” or “just be you” don’t really cut it when you’re an introvert, especially when your anxiety is often coupled with negative self-talk such as “I’ve got nothing to say” or “I’m really boring”.
Mindfulness can help, and hypnotherapy can help, too. In one or two sessions we can address your anxiety, give you some coping mechanisms and also turn down your negative self-talk. The quickest and easiest way to deal with negative thoughts is to imagine them filling a balloon, and then – in your mind’s eye – watching the balloon float away. Next, replace it with positive thoughts – either in your own voice or in the voice of some you admire. “I can do this.” “I can be interesting” and so on.
Visualisation can help, too
You can also help by visualising yourself having an OK time at the conference before you go. Don’t picture yourself hiding in a corner – picture yourself holding your own. And the best way to hold your own is often to learn a few open questions. Most people actually love to talk about themselves, so “How did you get here?”, “What does your company do?” and “What’s on the agenda that sounds interesting?” will make you look like a perfectly capable delegate and also let the other person waffle on so you don’t have to.
One last tip: take a look at this excellent TED talk by Amy Cuddy, who explains how changing your physical state can change your emotional state. It’s a little bit of an insight into how the mind works.