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Social anxiety has me tongue tied

answered 09:06 PM EST, Wed September 04, 2013
anonymous anonymous
I can debate digital foes to the ground, in real time, but in person I get tongue tied and my mind goes literally blank. How can I retain my wits in real-life social debate situations?

Art Matthews Says...

This is likely a matter of your attention and focus during debate and the effects of social anxiety. Let's first step back and look at what's at work here. I'm having to assume much of this because of the brevity of your question but I think I'm on the right track for the average person with your concern.

Using text-based communication, you are able to focus your mind on their message and craft a cunning response because of the natural sense of safety you have being in your own environment and not being in physical proximity to your "foe." Might be called the "Video Game Effect." When gaming, your character (avatar) can die over and over and you likely feel nothing more than a sense of disappointment or momentary frustration while you restart the level. Your conscious knows the foes are not real; so while you have some activation of your fight/flight response increasing your adrenaline level and heightening your senses and mental acuity, there is no real threat and the activation is minimal, providing you with an optimum level of stress to perform at your best while not being impeded by that activation.

When you are with a person face-to-face (F2F), then you are literally faced with additional information and stimuli which brings things to your attention and focus you haven't had to deal with in the virtual environment, such as judgments you either believe they have of you or you have of yourself based on your performance. That awareness increases the activation of the Fight or Flight response (the sympathetic nervous system) to the point that you feel you must defend yourself or flee. Your body and brain starts getting flooded with adrenaline and neurotransmitters designed to get you out of an imminent threat situation. The tongue-tiedness comes about because the human brain (while we all like to think contrarily) can only pay attention to one think at a time (no, that's not a typo... I meant "think"). When doused in adrenaline and excitatory hormones, the brain begins to lose focus and seeks an exit strategy leaving your mouth "holding the bag." Faced with F2F confrontation, you become more aware of how you appear or how you think they think you appear, and you can't stay on message.

The key to overcoming this is three fold: treat the social anxiety with therapy and/or medication, work on your self-confidence as a public speaker, and build skills in speaking by rehearsing with people who are "safe" in a F2F environment and progress into ever more risky speaking situations. You can learn to reduce your emotional activation through self-help stress management, mindfulness and cognitive reframing; or you may want to enlist the help of a professional. If you have the ability to debate in text in real-time, there is no question of your standing as a content expert or your analytical ability. I believe It's self-consciousness and negative self-talk that's likely getting in the way.

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Page last updated Sep 04, 2013

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