How Can We Overcome Social Anxiety?
Do you feel anxious or self-conscious in social situations? Are you shy to the point that if prevents you from engaging with people at work or other social settings? Do you find yourself worrying about what others may think of you? Do you hate being the center of attention because you think everyone notices how nervous you are? Do you find it hard to participate in conversations because you fear that you won’t have anything to contribute or people will find you boring or uninteresting?
What is Social Anxiety?
These are just a few examples of situations, worries and fears that people with social anxiety experience. Social anxiety is a specific form of anxiety that occurs mostly in social settings. Most people get a bit anxious or uneasy in certain social situations, but those with social anxiety have high levels of shyness that prevents them from participating or enjoying the things they would like to do. Social phobia can interfere with making friends, going to events, engaging in hobbies, going away to college or even making small talk with co-workers at lunch.
The most common situations where you may experience social anxiety are public speaking, talking to a group of people or one-on-one to an individual, talking to authority figures, and anytime you have to “perform” (such as at a work meeting, playing baseball or presenting an assignment).
There are many uncomfortable physical symptoms associated with social anxiety as well. These include knots or butterflies in the stomach, fast breathing, feeling hot, sweating, blushing, shaking or trembling, dizziness, and rapid heartbeat.
What Maintains Social Anxiety?
Although of most of those suffering from social anxiety would like to feel more comfortable during social interactions, their unhelpful thoughts and avoidance/safety behaviors and increased self-focus often prevent them from overcoming their shyness.
• People with social anxiety often have unhelpful thoughts about themselves and their ability to handle social situations. For instance, before going to a party a person might think, “I am so weird and awkward. I will make a fool of myself trying to talk to people.” This type of thinking reduces the person’s self-confidence and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
• Moreover, socially anxious people tend to avoid anxiety-inducing situations because it makes them feel uncomfortable or only participate while using safety behaviors such as avoiding eye contact, staying in the background or not saying anything. Avoidance lowers anxiety in the short-run but makes matters worse in the long-run.
• People who are socially anxious also concentrate on their own physical sensations in social situations much more than others. So they instantly notice and feel overwhelmed when they sweat or blush, which makes them even more self-conscious as they believe everyone else may be noticing and judging them too.
So What Can We Do to Overcome Social Anxiety?
Challenging Unhelpful Thoughts
An effective way to deal with social anxiety is to learn to challenge our own unhelpful thoughts. While there is not much we can do about whether these thoughts pop up in our mind, we can learn to recognize and react to them differently. The most common types of unhelpful thoughts are listed below:
• Predicting the future – e.g.: “Everyone is going to be looking at me and they will notice if I blush.”
• Mind reading – e.g.: “This guy must think I am an idiot.”
• Overgeneralizing – e.g.: “I have blanked during the office meeting yesterday, so I am sure I will blank again today.”
• Taking things personally – e.g.: “Those people must be laughing at me.”
• Labeling – e.g.: “ I am boring and weird.”
• Focusing on the negative – e.g.: “I did terribly at the party overall because that one person only talked to me for a couple of minutes.”
First, try to become aware when you are having such thoughts. Then ask yourself the following questions to challenge your unhelpful thinking:
• Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?
• What would you say to a friend who has the same thoughts?
• How will you feel about this in a day, a month, a year?
• Is there another way to look at the situation?
• What are the costs and benefits of thinking this way?
Not Focusing on Physical Sensations
Another way to overcome social anxiety is through directing our attention away from our bodily sensations during social interactions. Practicing mindfulness can be very effective in this endeavor. Establish a regular practice of mindfulness meditation for 5-10 minutes most days of the week. There are many free resources on how to do this – you can go on Youtube or download a mindfulness app such as Headspace or Calm. During mindfulness meditation we learn to direct and control our attention and focus more on helpful things and less on unhelpful things.
Also, when is social situations, remember that your anxiety is a lot less visible than you believe. And even if others notice that you are anxious, that doesn’t mean that anything is wrong or that you are performing badly. All of us experience anxiety at times and can relate to others’ experiences of the same. In addition, remember that the best thing you can do is be yourself and try to be in the present moment. Anytime your mind wanders onto unhelpful thoughts or physical sensations, notice what is happening and bring your attention back to present. Focus on what the other person is saying, the flavor of the food you are eating or your surroundings.
Lastly, exposures (reducing avoidance and safety behaviors) are also very effective in overcoming social anxiety.
As mentioned earlier, when we avoid situations that create anxiety or use safety behaviors, we may feel relief in the short-term, but we are making matters worse in the long-term. In fact, the quickest way to reduce social anxiety is to confront our fears in a gradual fashion. When we face our fear, our brain generates the fear/anxiety response initially. However, if we stay engaged and endure that initial surge in anxiety and wait until it subsides (or at least decreases significantly), we are teaching our brain that there is no need to feel fear in that particular situation. When we face that same situation over and over again, our anxiety response will decrease and may even dissipate altogether.
So in order to conquer your fear successfully, start small. First try something that is a bit scary but still manageable. Keep on practicing in that one situation until you fear subsides significantly. Then set another goal, this time a bit more challenging and focus on that until the anxiety decreases and so on until you are able to face your really high-level fears. For example, if you have trouble talking to people one-on-one, the first goal could be to just keep eye contact with someone for a few seconds. Then try saying hello. After that challenge yourself to say ask one question such as “How are you?” or “How is you day going?”. Then set a goal of asking a question and following up the other person’s answer with one comment, etc.
While social anxiety is often a debilitating fear in social situations, it is possible to overcome it by identifying and challenging our unhelpful thoughts, becoming more mindful and directing our attention away from our bodily sensations in social interactions as well as challenging ourselves to gradually face our fears knowing that enduring those uncomfortable feelings initially will pay off nicely in the long-run.