In this little nugget of help we’re going to apply some tools from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy to help with School and Social Anxiety.
This is an activity is meant to help build an increased ability to face anxiety provoking situations like school or social settings. The goal of this activity is not relaxation, but resilience, meaning the ability to experience uncomfortable sensations with strength, compassion and calm. So during this activity you may feel a couple of emotions, some comfortable and some uncomfortable, please stick with the activity through the end and I promise you will develop a greater ability to experience your emotions without them controlling you.
First check in with yourself. Sit in a comfortable place. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Take a moment and notice your feet, wiggle them, press them against the floor, move up your legs, clench your calves, then soften those muscles. Then clench the big muscles in your thighs for a moment…then relax them. Breathe out. Now move your awareness up to your stomach, you may feel some tension here and that’s ok, pretend you’re a scientist who has never noticed what that feeling is like, explore that feeling in your stomach, describe it in your mind-what does it feel like? … Allow it to be there while clenching your stomach muscles as tightly as you can. Now breathe out and then take a big inhale, expand your stomach out as far as it goes- hold that breath and notice what that feels like. Let that air out and move your awareness up to your chest and back, tense those muscles, pull your shoulders up to your ears, hold them tightly, clench hard, then soften those muscles and breathe out slowly. Now clench your biceps, then release, then your fists, now release. Go up to your face and clench your face muscles tightly, and now soften those muscles in your face.
Now we are going to do a quick scan of your bodily sensations, what do you notice in your body. There might be some places in your body that feel warm, soft and comfortable, notice those…, and there might be some places that feel tight or painful, notice these areas, you don’t need to label these as bad or avoid them, but just notice them.
Notice yourself breathing, what does it feel like to breathe.
Take one more deep breath in, and then out slowly.
What feelings or emotions are you experiencing right now? Some of them may be uncomfortable but that’s ok, just notice them.be curious-what does it feel like to feel those emotions without needing to escape them. Send each of your emotions a little mental hug, it’s ok to have feelings. Notice if there are any more emotions, perhaps quieter emotions that you are feeling too. What else are you noticing? Be curious-you don’t need them to go away-you can handle feeling them- how would you describe each of these emotions?
Take one more deep breath and notice yourself breathing.
Now, lets visualize yourself going to the first day of school. The bus pulls up to the front of the school, and as you get off the bus you feel your stomach tighten a bit, perhaps you feel a lot of energy coursing through your body, you may feel a little tense or jittery. That’s ok. It’s perfectly normal to be having these emotions and sensations. You can handle feeling this way. Anxiety and excitement are the same physiological response in our body, both of them prepping us for action, to perform well. It’s ok to have this feeling in your body- Your old habitual thought is “I need to escape” or “I can’t handle feeling this way” but now you remind yourself- I can handle feeling this way and be ok. I don’t need my sensations to go away for me to be ok. I can feel them and notice them and while they are uncomfortable, they can’t harm me. I am actually safe in this moment. You look around and remember that probably most of the other kids are also feeling a little anxious and excited right now too. It’s perfectly natural to feel this way, and it’s not going to harm you.
You shift your attention back to your breathing and as you step toward the school you notice something beautiful-what is it? Perhaps the clear sky or the green grass. Take a minute and notice that one pretty thing.
You hear lots of kids running noisily towards the school, some are meeting up with their friends, some are alone. Suddenly you have the thought-”What if no one will be my friend?” or you worry that people are looking at you in a funny way. For a moment you have visions of catastrophe run through your head, you’re afraid of being rejected, of being alone or being a loser. But you quickly notice those thoughts. They are painful and loud thoughts, but they are just thoughts. Just as you can notice yourself listening to my voice in this moment. You can notice yourself having those thoughts. They aren’t truthful. They don’t help you be the person that you value- because you value being kind. You care about connecting with people. You want to be a good friend. You can act on those values, and good things will happen. People will want to be friends with you when they get to know you, because of who you are. You notice those scary thoughts and you imagine them written on the side of the bus, and the bus begins to pull away.
You remember that you’re ok. You have some inner gifts to share with the world, even if you are quiet or observant instead of a loud clown. Take a minute and think of one of your gifts that you have, one thing you are good at-like being a good listener, or noticing other’s needs, etc.
You remember some of the people who love you and like you. Your friends, you parents. You remember that you are safe right now, it may feel uncomfortable, but you can handle that. You may feel a bit of anxiety, but you can open up some space for that anxiety inside of you. You don’t need to make that anxiety go away to be ok. Imagine that your anxiety is a little child saying “What if no one likes me” and you say “Come here little anxiety, I want to give you a hug” see it’s uncomfortable, but you can experience it and it doesn’t harm you.
You walk through the front doors of the school and there is a lot of noise and commotion, not your favorite, so you head over to your locker - you already know where it is because you went to the open house- you open your locker and a gentle waft of your favorite smell comes out of it. You spend a minute just enjoying that smell.
And then you walk to your first class. You know right where it is and you arrive a few minutes early. You take your seat, and look around, there’s a few other kids sitting down and you say “Hi” to the girl sitting next to you, she says “Hi” back. And then suddenly you feel so awkward- you start worrying that you should have said more or maybe you shouldn’t have said anything, or that you didn’t make enough eye contact and suddenly you’re hyper aware of how you’re sitting in your chair and you can feel your heart beating a little faster and your hands sweating a little bit, and then you notice yourself tensing up a bit, and you can notice your thoughts. You remember what your mentor said- you don’t actually act awkward- you just feel awkward. No one else is even paying attention to you, they’re all anxious and excited about their first day of school, and they’re too busy worrying about what people think about them to notice you. You can still feel that tight feeling in your stomach and your sweaty palms, and you tell yourself “That’s ok” it’s ok to have uncomfortable sensations some times, I can let myself feel this experience without needing to escape it or make it go away. You know that it never helps to beat yourself up, so instead you just show yourself a little compassion. You go back to noticing for a while, you sift through your experience in this moment.
S- Sensations, just notice them, both comfortable and uncomfortable. I- Images- what do you envision in this moment- can you just notice those images and then bring yourself back to center with the breath. F- Feelings, what emotions are you experiencing, are you having more than one? What is one thing you are excited about? T- Thoughts- what are you thinking? You don’t need to battle or change your thoughts, just notice yourself having them.
You take another deep breath and you are feeling kind of proud that right now you’re feeling a little anxiety but you’re ok with it. It’s a bit uncomfortable but you’re beginning to develop the skill of letting yourself feel it. You give yourself a little imaginary pat on the back for being courageous, for letting yourself do hard things and feel hard things and stick with it.
The bell rings and the teacher starts class. He goes through the role, you pay close attention, waiting for him to call your name, and then when he does you say “Here” and maybe you wonder a bit if you did it ok, but no one even looks at you-they’re all just paying attention to their own stuff right now. You remind yourself that you can do hard things. You take another deep breath and let it out slowly.
Then the teacher passes out a sheet of paper to everyone, on it is an Icebreaker activity- you hate these, you have to go around the room and find someone who has broken their arm and someone who has lived in another state and someone who has a pet reptile, etc. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll be awkward. You may worry that no one will ask you questions, or you’re afraid that people will ask you questions. You press your feet into the floor, feeling the floor pressing back up at you .
You notice your fear, it’s telling you to escape, to avoid, to hide, to be silent. And you notice that fear, you acknowledge it. You say “Hello Fear, I’ve noticed you’re trying to hang out with me today. “I know I can’t make you go away, but you’re not the boss of me and I still get to decide what matters to me. So you can keep making suggestions, but I know what is more important” You know that you don’t like these Icebreaker activities, but you also know that you do want to make some friends-and you don’t want to isolate yourself on the first day, so you look around and see another kid who looks kinda quiet and is standing by himself. You walk over to him, a you feel a little awkward, but you don’t actually look awkward. From the outside you look perfectly normal.
When you get to his desk you look at your paper and ask “What is your favorite book?” he seems a little shy, so you just listen while he tells you about a book series that he likes- then he looks at his paper and asks you what book you like, you tell him about your favorite book and what you like about it, and you can see in his smile that he’s read that one and likes it too. He must be a special type of nerd. You stand around and other kids come up to you and ask their questions and you ask yours and pretty soon your paper is filled out.
The teacher gets back up, he seems nice and also a little funny, you think you’ll like his class.
The rest of that class goes pretty smoothly. You just sit in your chair and read the syllabus while the teacher tells you the class rules and talks about what you’re going to learn. So far so good. Your feel proud of yourself after your first day of school, there were times that were uncomfortable, but that’s ok. And there were times that were easy. You learned more about what to expect, and even though you felt some anxiety-you didn’t let it boss you around. You were gentle with yourself, patient with your emotions and sensations, and you were courageous to show up and feel lots of things today- excitement, beauty, anxiety, hope for new friends, and a sense of confidence in your ability to do hard things.
Now come back to the present moment, notice your feet on the floor, notice your breathing. Think back over this exercise- was it uncomfortable at times? But you stuck with it…You chose to do something challenging because something else mattered more than avoidance. Take a deep breath and give yourself a little pat on the back for letting yourself experience your emotions. You are on the pathway to growth and emotional strength.
Keep up the good work.