You want to meet new people, but you dread walking into a room full of strangers. You want to connect with your friends, but your hands get clammy when you think of picking up the phone to call them. You want people to get to know you, but your heart pounds as you think of all the ways they may be silently judging you.
Social anxiety can wreak havoc on a person’s life. The good news, though, is it doesn’t have to.
And you’re definitely not alone. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 15 million American adults suffer from social anxiety disorder (the second most commonly diagnosed anxiety disorder). And many in the mental health community believe that because of the pandemic and the necessity of social distancing and quarantining for so long, many more people will experience social anxiety.
So what can you do to overcome this? First, let’s understand just what social anxiety is. Then, we’ll go over some exercises you can do to cope.
It’s common for anyone to feel nervous about walking into a room full of people they don’t know or get the jitters before a date, so how can you tell if it’s just your typical, run-of-the-mill shyness or if it’s social anxiety?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health:
“Social anxiety disorder (also called social phobia) is a mental health condition. It is an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others. This fear can affect work, school, and your other day-to-day activities. It can even make it hard to make and keep friends.”
The NIMH says if you’ve felt this way for a minimum of six months and it’s “[making] it hard for you to do everyday tasks,” then you might have social anxiety disorder.
This article doesn’t provide medical advice, though, so you shouldn’t use it to diagnose yourself. If you suspect you may have social anxiety disorder, speak with your doctor or a licensed mental health professional. They’re the ones who are equipped to give a proper diagnosis and help you!
To find tangible tips on how to deal with social anxiety, I reached out to coaches, therapists and people who have suffered from social anxiety to find out what helps.
Think of a time you were at your best—your most confident, competent and attractive version of yourself. Now, find a photo of yourself from that time and keep it in your pocket, wallet, purse or even make it the lock screen on your phone so you can look at it throughout the social interaction. This is a tactic that happiness coach Dannie De Novo recommends.
“This reminds them that they are still that person and that they have the tools and talents to navigate this social setting in the present moment,” he says.
And it works! De Novo has a client who suffered from social anxiety even before the pandemic. But because his client’s dream is to get married and have a family, he wanted to get out there and start dating again. At the beginning of this year, his client used this trick to start interacting with women again, and since then, he’s been dating regularly.
Unhelpful thoughts start swirling around in your brain once social anxiety kicks in. Hannah Tishman, LCSW, of Cobb Psychotherapy has some helpful tips for taming those thoughts.
“Catch the cognitive distortion (unhelpful thought pattern) that you are having as soon as it comes on,” she says. “For example, those who experience social anxiety often have all-or-nothing distortions. This can be something like ‘I never know what to say at social gatherings.’ Ask yourself if this is true and what evidence supports this. ‘Am I basing my thoughts on facts or on feelings?’ It's helpful to identify times you have been successful in a social setting and to reframe the thought to, ‘Sometimes I have trouble figuring out what to say in social settings, but not every time.’ This is called cognitive restructuring and allows you to think more rationally, expose yourself to more anxiety-provoking situations, and to engage in less rumination.”
Tishman recalls one client who was highly anxious about going to a party and feared he’d be judged for being awkward. She helped him identify and reframe the cognitive distortion of thinking he was always awkward to realizing that it was only sometimes that he didn’t know what to say. This helped him to build confidence and worry less about what others think.
It’s important to realize that negative and unhelpful thoughts might not go away—but that’s okay! They don’t have to stop you from enjoying socializing.
“He continues to experience all-or-nothing thoughts,” explains Tishman, “but is now able to quickly reframe them and is slowly restructuring these types of unhelpful cognitions, leading to decreased social anxiety.”
Anxiety rarely helps us see things as they are. It can make small things seem massive or make us think up catastrophic consequences that are highly unlikely to happen. To combat this, Natalie Capano, MHC-LP, of Cobb Psychotherapy recommends this exercise: Pinpoint the insecurities you feel anxious about, such as being judged by how you look or how you talk.
Got those in your mind? Good. Now, think of someone that you have noticed in those same situations.
“This becomes difficult,” explains Capano, “because we usually don’t pay much attention to others in the way we think we think they will towards us.”
She adds, “When clients can’t remember what the person in front of them in the store looked like, or what another person's conversation sounded like, they are reminded that anxiety manifests on irrational thoughts that likely will not become a reality. When we remove ourselves from a situation and think about it from an outside point of view, we are reminded of our place in the world in relation to others. We see that we are not under as much of a magnifying glass as our anxiety wants us to think we are.”
“Social anxiety stems from the generally subconscious thoughts/mental chatter that we have going on in our head on a regular basis,” explains psychotherapist and mindset coach Carrie Leaf, LMFT.
To stop anxiety in its tracks, she recommends taking deep breaths and checking in with your self-talk. For example, an anxious person might be thinking, “I’m going to sound stupid” or “People will think I’m weird.” Once you’ve identified the negative thought, Leaf recommends pushing it away, challenging it or replacing it with a positive thought.
“One of the go-to phrases that I tell myself when I am feeling social anxiety is that ‘I'm not that special or important,’” she says. “I challenge myself on why I think that I would be so important to people that they are going to notice if my hair is out of place or that my dress has a spot on it. I remind myself that I don't notice or care about these things with other people; why would others care or notice me?”
When you’re experiencing social anxiety, do you picture people laughing at something you say or whispering behind your back? These are examples of negative visualizations. Instead, why not visualize a positive outcome? That’s something that Womenio lifestyle and relationship coach Nicole Graham recommends.
“Imagine yourself having a nice time in social situations, speaking with others, and feeling well in your body,” she says. “Visualization is quite effective and will make you feel more secure because you have trained your brain to believe it has successfully dealt with similar situations many times before.”
So instead of thinking of all the things that might go wrong, allow yourself to dream of how things might go right. Picture yourself cracking a joke and everyone laughing at your wittiness, or imagine a cute stranger smiling at you and striking up an engaging conversation. In the least, it’ll calm your nerves way more than catastrophizing will.
Social anxiety rips us out of the present moment as we get mired in overwhelming feelings and thoughts. One way to overcome this is through mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is described as the state of being conscious or aware of something,” explains Donna T. Novak, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and owner of Simi Psychological Group. “Practicing mindfulness on a regular basis allows us to more easily understand the root of our anxiety and be better able to self-soothe. Clients who can practice grounding and mindfulness to be more in tune with themselves successfully feel less anxious after self-soothing and reassurance.”
Lori Long, Ph.D., is a licensed child psychologist who has the unique perspective of having gone through therapy herself for social anxiety. She says the best way to overcome it is to turn your attention outward.
“When I become socially anxious, it is usually because my attention is split in a conversation,” she explains. “I begin focusing all of my attention on myself so I can monitor my own anxious symptoms. All of this attention doesn't help; it actually accelerates my feelings of panic. Refocusing my attention on the other person has helped me so much. I can really listen to other people, focus on what they are saying, or turn my focus towards helping others.”
She used this tactic recently when she had to advocate for a child at an individualized education plan meeting, where the rest of the team did not agree with her findings that the child had autism.
“Because I wasn't focusing on myself and rather what the team members were saying, I was able to speak up and disagree with the school team,” Long says. “By doing so, the school team listened, understood, and ultimately agreed to providing an IEP and needed school services. By turning my focus outward, I had the ability to use my voice to help this young girl get the services she needed at school in order to be successful!”
When trying to overcome anxiety of any kind, it’s best to start small.
"Take it gradually and think of approaching anxiety as a step-by-step process," says Wilfred van Gorp, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at The Cognitive Assessment Group. “Start with the least anxiety-provoking item on your ‘social anxiety hierarchy,’ and once you successfully conquer that, work your way to the next step. Once you have successfully mastered that fear, keep going to the next step, and so on. You’ll be surprised how far you can go! If you get blocked, go back a step or two and work your way forward again. Seek professional help if this isn’t working.”
Van Gorp used this tactic with a client who was an attorney who had never met her colleagues in person because her fear of meeting people in real life limited her to working only for virtual law firms. Van Gorp helped her build a social anxiety hierarchy, starting with the least anxiety-inducing situation (meeting a colleague on Zoom) and building up to the most anxiety-inducing situation (meeting the managing partner in person).
"After 16 sessions, the patient was able to change firms to a traditional law firm without fear of meeting and working with her colleagues in person, in a traditional office setting, and was admitted to a partner-track position,” he says.
Notice that none of the above tips on how to deal with social anxiety involved avoidance. When we’re feeling anxious, it’s totally natural for us to avoid or run from the situation that’s making us uncomfortable. But the only way to rewire your brain and form new habits is to face those situations.
By using the tips and exercises above, you can build up your resilience, hone your people skills and become more confident during social interactions. Keep putting yourself out there. The more you do it, the more practice and confidence you’ll gain.
And of course, if you still suffer from the negative outcomes of social anxiety, the best thing to do is speak to your doctor or a licensed mental health professional. There are even online options for communicating with a therapist, such as Talkspace and BetterHelp, who can help you identify what’s going on and direct you toward the proper care that you might need.
Deep breaths. Show yourself some compassion. You’re not alone in your social anxiety, and it doesn’t have to control your life.
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