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Afraid to Talk? Dealing with Social Anxiety

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

Lawyers afraid to talk? No, it is not the punchline to a joke but, rather, the reality for more than you may think.

Social anxiety expert Jonathan Berent, LCSW, ACSW, who has worked with more than 10,000 individuals—from professional athletes to business leaders to, yes, lawyers—calls this fear of speaking “selective mutism.” In lawyers, he says it often shows up at networking events, in the courtroom, and even in the most casual encounters during meetings or around the office.

“What typically happens is that individuals have a visceral reaction to the stressor they encounter. This could manifest in sweating, stammering, shortness of breath, increased heartbeat or muscle tension. It is an adrenaline response that comes directly from our inborn ‘fight or flight’ mechanism. We all have it, but people with social anxiety will do anything to avoid the feeling—thus resulting in the fear of speaking, or selective mutism.”

His best advice is to do exactly the opposite of your initial reaction to the adrenaline—step into it rather than run away from it. “Typically a client comes to me for help when the anxiety gets in the way of their success at work,” says Berent. “They want to make partner or get a promotion and they realized they can no longer avoid the situations that make them uncomfortable.”  Berent will work with them privately using several levels of treatments, but for those who want to be proactive, here are some of the steps he asks clients to take.

  • Accept that you will have an adrenaline reaction in certain situations. Acknowledge it and move on. Berent even advises “surfing the wave of adrenaline” to make it work for you. “Adrenaline is power,” he says.
  • Let go of the idea of perfection; instead set realistic expectations for yourself.
  • Breathe deeply through your diaphragm.
  • Focus on the message, not the messenger (you).
  • Change the way you think about your anxiety. Do not think about it as a character disorder. Nothing is wrong with you.
  • Take a leap of faith believing that people will cut you some slack.
  • Examine the root of your anxiety—like so many adult issues, it was probably shaped in childhood. This is something that you may want to work through with a therapist.

For more information, visit Berent’s site devoted to social anxiety.

Illustration ©ImageZoo.

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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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