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Overcoming Social Anxiety with Associate Professor John Malouff


Roughly 11% of Australians will experience social anxiety at some point in their life. Social anxiety, or social phobia, is characterised by feelings of intense anxiety surrounding social situations. It can manifest as extreme avoidance, and can affect friendships, careers, and even education.

Associate Professor John Malouff teaches behavioural modification at UNE. He has experience with social anxiety, both in his own life and witnessing it in the classroom.

“That’s where my interest came from, seeing that students will not submit a short video for my behaviour modification class. They’d rather take a zero for that assignment. That’s unfortunate.”

People who experience social anxiety will often go out of their way to avoid social situations, particularly those that increase their social anxiety. This avoidance creates relief, which John says makes people more likely to avoid those situations again in the future.

“[When] people avoid situations, they don’t then acquire the skills that would help them to do well, or even better, in those situations, whether it’s public speaking or just talking to a person at dinner.”

“This is very similar in some ways to other types of phobias because of the high anxiety. It’s specific to certain social situations, and it leads to avoidance. So it’s that avoidance, unfortunately for people, it sure relieves them when they decide, ‘oh, I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to class, I’m not going to post anything.’ Ah, the relief! And that’s what rewards them, and they keep avoiding them.”

Feelings of nervousness in social situations can be normal – but when those feelings cause you to avoid situations that increase anxiety that’s when it becomes a problem. Anxiety is a biological function. Our amygdala, which is responsible for our feelings of fight or flight, responds to perceived threats. When social situations create anxiety, our brain begins to associate those situations with a threat. Techniques like breathing can help to relax our body and our mind.

Taking a deep breath can be a powerful tool in your arsenal against anxiety. Even pro athletes, as John explains, use breathing.

“That’s what pro athletes do before the most important athletic performance of their life. Take a deep breath and focus on what they’re going to do. And then they have in their mind, throwing a baseball, hitting a tennis ball. That’s what you do. And you go in there, like a warrior, like a lion, rather than walking away like a lamb.”

“As you calm yourself, no matter what has you tense, if you calm yourself down, your physiology calms down too.”

As a clinical psychologist and lecturer in behavioural modification, John has plenty of experience with techniques to help fight anxiety. The main technique that is used in treating social anxiety is exposure therapy. Gradual exposure to fears, along with changing the way your think, can be the key to overcoming social anxiety.

“Take the little chances, take little risks, keep making progress. […]Go gradually, but go man, go forward. That gradual exposure is what we would use in treatment, and that’s what people can do for themselves.”

“To do just a little better today than yesterday, a little more.”

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