The short answer to your question about how you’re supposed to find distractions when you’re “in a situation” rather than at home, is: you’re not.
This question comes up a lot at this point, discussed in many posts, also asked in various ways, such as how to use distractions in class, when talking with someone, when approaching a person/situation which causes you more anxiety, etc.
Think about this for a moment. You’re in sessions 3-4. In session 2 you practiced slowing down with Slow Talk. Session 3, you’re working on being aware of ANTs, maybe for the first time in your life, catching them and labeling them, using distractions as a way to get our minds out of that never-ending thought train. Session 4, reinforcing that ANTs really are not good for you in any way. This last point is important, and really all of these steps are important, full stop. As to the last point, if someone never gets just how negative, irrational, unhelpful and plain life-ending ANTs truly are, they can continue through the therapy without even addressing or seeing ANTs for what they are. The rest of the program won’t matter if the person doesn’t allow this possibility. That said, we can’t do a perfect job of any of this first time through, second time, etc. There is no perfect and we’re just shooting for progress, which will come.
Back to your point on distractions. Dr. Richards presents distractions as a part of ANTs stoppage. You said it yourself when you essentially define what social anxiety really is: “…sometimes an overwhelming amount of negative thoughts bring me into… depression which makes my SA worse”. That for me is what anxiety boils down to. Our incessant thoughts create this situation. So what do we do now? We can’t do this all at once. We break it down into pieces we can work with, time that our brains need to change. We challenge that “incessant” by trying our best now (that’s all we can do at any given time) to catch ANTs, say that they’re ANTs, challenge them (thus challenging that automatic brain neural pathway), and then get ourselves away from allowing the thoughts to continue. We do that last step by using some sort of distraction… for now.
Let’s repeat that because that is another question that is often asked… “how long do I keep using distractions?”. We’re using distractions now, while we need to, and really anytime that your brain is going into ANTs again. There’s no use for spending time on irrational thoughts. As you continue to do the therapy, you’ll find that you might not need distractions as much anymore. Perhaps a rational statement out loud is enough to get you away from the ANT. But for now, as you well know, and I know myself, you probably go through the process of trying to catch, label and get away from ANTs and then the next moment they are right back there popping up in your mind. I wouldn’t expect it to be any other way for you because we’re changing entrenched habits. That takes time. Try not to pressure yourself into irrational expectations on this. We know what’s rational, but we all fall into the pressure trap. Just be aware, try not to expect too much of yourself too soon. You won’t be using distractions forever. Nor could you expect to use them in situations like you describe, not directly at least. You can’t sing or dance or go watch a TV show or go for a jog when you’re about to have a conversation, about to approach an authority figure, or in a class, right? But you can, and should be, using distractions when the situation allows for it to stop that incessant flow of ANTs thoughts and feelings. And we use distractions now because we probably need something more active, more direct at this point in our progress - active rather than passive. Remember, all this time spent on ANTs thoughts, even while at home - this will STILL have an effect on how built up your anxiety is when you are in that moment of the class or approaching someone. So don’t discount time spent on distractions while not in that situation. Every part of this is helpful.
The strategies I would use “in the moment” for class, etc., would be Slow Talk and slowing down, relaxing strategies of any kind including physical PMR / loosing the body and awareness to release tension as we use self-defensive mechanisms physically, and any use of external (outward) focus. Get out of our heads as much as possible in those moments. Focus on the surroundings, focus on what people say, use a calming word, breathe, Slow Talk. Now, some of these are later in the therapy. You don’t have to jump there. You don’t have to worry. In fact, you’re going at the pace you need to go at. That’s the pace your brain needs, you need for this stuff to sink in. PMR comes in session 9, the Look Around Technique in 6 - and this is a kind of external focusing exercise, as well. Those will become the tools, I feel, many of us will use “in the moment”.
You’re using distractions now, and anytime you can, to break up that anxiety neural pathway. You likely won’t be using that in the moment of anxiety, so fall back to calming, slowing down strategies (Slow Talk being one of the more powerful, more accessible tools for all of us if practiced).
I hope that helps. Anyone else have thoughts or opinions here? Please join the conversation. I hope you feel encouraged, FitAttention. You’re asking the right questions. You’re sticking with the therapy, making progress. You’re where you should be, doing what you should be doing. Keep it up!