Sunday, March 23, 2008

Did I Really Just Say That?

My friend Morgan and I were strolling down the street. Wait. First, you need to know a little background on him: we attended Stanford together, he's a comedy screenwriter and has an amazing command of the English language. Grammatically speaking, he never screws up. He's one of those verbal SAT freaks. Anyway, we're walking with particularly attractive company, and he blurts out at the end of his story: "So, in a walnut."

There followed an awkward five-second pause and we realized he meant, "in a nutshell" I was both shocked and amused.

What produced this rare brain fart? Let's face it, chatting with the potential love of your life can be more stressful than a physics midterm for which you didn't study. How is that you often find yourself tongue-tied when trying to make a good first impression?

Once upon a time, human survival often meant running from an approaching lion. Humans developed the ability to respond quickly in the face of imminent danger. See something stressful and the body releases adrenaline and similar chemicals. Blood moves to essential organs-the brain (to think fast and furious), heart (to pump blood) and muscles (to run).
Seeing someone attractive is a stimulus like any other and produces a release of chemicals inside the body. Some-endorphins-are the body's form of an opiate and they provide a pleasurable experience. But the "stress component" in the situation causes the release of other chemicals that increase our heart rate, cause sweating, and redistribute blood. In response to that attractive person, your brain works overtime. You may think a number of thoughts at the same time and just respond without the usual filtering. Thus, "nutshell" becomes "walnut."

THE BIOLOGY: Two parts of our nervous system control bodily function. The parasympathetic part kicks in when we are relaxed -- such as digesting food, focusing our eyes, or even having an erection. The sympathetic part leads to what is sometimes called the fright, flight or fight response -- that is, running from a lion . . . or the total panic you get when approaching someone attractive.

What are the normal reactions we have during a stressful situation like this? You may laugh at inappropriate times to release tension. You might blush or have a fainting sensation. You may even stutter or be at a momentary loss for words. This response will be more or less intense depending on a number of factors. Both our current emotional and mental state as well as our past encounters affects interpersonal interaction. This includes both our parents' relationship and our own prior dating experience.

Everyone has some fear of abandonment or rejection in approaching someone, and that's bound to affect your thinking. In the heat of passion, we may say things we wouldn't otherwise with an intact mind. There's no magic pill that prevents those fumbles or allows you to effortlessly walk up to someone and guarantee you'll score.

This is all completely normal -- but some people have extreme stress responses. For a fraction of us, the response to even simple human interaction is debilitating. About 5.3 million Americans suffer from something called social anxiety or social phobia. Virtually all social interaction is avoided out of an intense phobia and fear of being embarrassed. Social phobia can result from abuse and neglect in the past and can cause lowered self-esteem and depression. Some people with social phobia may also have other anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

If you feel you have intense fear, low self-esteem, abuse issues, or depression that prevent you from approaching people, you would benefit from consulting a therapist. Treating depression and anxiety is essential in building social interaction skills as well as relationships and how they develop.

For everyone else, here are some basic tips to overcome your fear and become a pick-up pro:

  • Make a point to start random conversations regularly. Practicing ahead of time could help you in a social situation when it really matters. Take your time.
  • Realize the alternative to not introducing yourself. You could get angry later for "what might have been."
  • If this isn't the only time you'll see the person, consider waiting until you aren't so wound up.
  • Be creative with the approach and think of the situation as a challenge.
  • Imagine how complemented the other person would be to know you're interested.
  • Remember when it's love at first sight, it doesn't matter whether the wrong words or any words were ever said.
  • Keep in mind that goofy can be endearing.

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