Social anxiety can be really debilitating and can be so severe as to prevent sufferers from carrying out daily tasks like shopping, engaging with work or social activities. Not to be confused with shyness – which is a personality trait and tends to be milder, more manageable and not generally viewed negatively. These are some tips for dealing with mild to moderate social anxiety.
There may be a strong urge to avoid – perfectly normal feelings when we are anxious about a social situation. It can be very tempting to make an excuse and not go. But that only makes it more difficult next time around. So do it anyway – the fear will diminish each time it is confronted. Acting AS IF you are not anxious has the effect of reducing the feeling of anxiety. And the more practice you get at social situations, the better you will get at dealing with them.
You can help yourself to relax quickly and feel much calmer (and therefore able to think more clearly and respond more naturally) when you address your breathing. Breathing slowly and deeply, with the out-breath longer than the in-breath, reverses the fight-flight-freeze response (sympathetic response of the autonomic nervous system) and engages the relaxation response (the parasympathetic response).
Through a bio-feedback loop, this calming of the breath, lowers the heart rate, allows the body to let go of muscle tension and has the effect of calming the mind.
When you walk into a social situation, take a pause and look around. Notice what you see / who you see. Are there a lot of people or a few. The lighting, the decor. Just notice, don’t make any judgement.
Notice how you feel. Be aware of any emotions you feel but don’t dwell on them. These will pass. Take a moment to observe the scene. Perhaps there is someone who you feel drawn towards – a warm smile, a kind look.
Listen to what you hear – music, voices, laughter, loud, soft? Notice anything else you can detect with your senses – smells, sensations – a deep carpet, a wooden floor, the temperature of the room.
Just taking a few moments to settle into the environment while your emotions settle is grounding and will allow you to connect more calmly.
You might feel very self-conscious – worried about how you look or come across. Try to shift your attention away from yourself and focus outwards.
Instead of thinking what am I going to say when it’s my turn or what will that person over there think of me, try focusing on other people. Be curious about them. Think about why you are there. For example, if it’s to meet people – then decide who you would like to meet. If it’s to learn – then bring your calm attention to the subject or teacher. If it’s to shop, then focus on the items for sale, the choices.
Be curious. Be discerning. Make some good choices whether its where to sit, who to talk to, what to buy.
If you become aware of uncomfortable feelings, just acknowledge them and don’t dwell. Keep your focus outwards and away from yourself.
You might be worrying about what other people are thinking about you. Remember you won’t be judged negatively for being nervous. You probably won’t be judged negatively at all as long as you are kind and respectful.
Relax and observe. In a room full of people who are you drawn to? Are you thinking somebody looks really friendly? Is there someone who really dresses well? Is there someone who looks a bit uncomfortable? Do you feel drawn to that friendly – looking person? Could you go over and say hello? Could you say something to that person whose dress sense you admire? (Everyone loves a compliment). Could you approach that person who looks like they are a bit lost – they might be very grateful.
Reaching out very quickly takes your mind off yourself. You might be surprised just how little other people are thinking about you – they might equally be thinking about themselves – feeling a bit self-conscious, wondering who they know/ might get to know.
You may need to take it 1 step at a time. Set yourself achievable goals – for example, give yourself permission to say you’ll stay for 10 minutes, then you can discretely leave if you wish. You may decide to stay longer and that’s ok – win : win.
Another goal might be to introduce yourself to one new person or to speak to 1 other person. Set small achievable goals to boost your confidence.
Don’t feel under pressure to be the light and soul of the party. That’s probably not who you are or where you are comfortable. So again, relax, be true to yourself and your own personality. If you are anxious about talking in a group remember that some people love to have an audience and its OK just to listen. Then when you feel comfortable you might feel you can express agreement with someone or just nod and smile. You might find it easier to ask a question than to give an opinion or ask another persons opinion before giving your own.
You might worry about what you will say at a social event. If this is the case you might have some plans made in advance. Plan a few questions. Maybe you could have a funny story or anecdote to share – something that happened that day, on the way, last time you were at 1 of these. You might be interested in some particular item on the news at the moment and you might have some opinions or just be interested to hear other peoples opinions.
Having positive expectations will go a long way to helping you feel more relaxed and comfortable. Don’t misuse your imagination by conjuring up disastrous outcomes. Be aware of your thoughts – challenge any negative thoughts and worries and focus instead on the best that could happen. A mind that is primed to expect a positive experience tends to make that happen!
Social anxiety can be associated with psychological trauma, conditioning or other anxiety disorders. In this case you may require more specialist help from a counsellor or psychotherapist. Please feel free to contact me for further details about my therapy or to book a session.