How to overcome social anxiety 

A talented and diligent student is struggling in his communications subject. 25 percent of his mark is based on participation, but he hasn’t spoken up in class since the beginning of the semester because he’s afraid he’ll look foolish.

A computer genius recently created their first video game. They are unemployed despite their skill and recent graduation from a prestigious computer science course. Because they are frightened of going to an interview, they haven’t applied for any jobs.

The football pitch is dominated by a five-star athlete with her swift footwork and creative playmaking. She appears chilly and indifferent when questioned by media following the game. She actually responds quickly because she is afraid of coming across as haughty.

What connects each of these individuals? social phobia. If any of these descriptions apply to you, you might be a sufferer of social anxiety. You may learn more about this illness and how to treat it by using this guide.

Recognize the root causes of social phobia.

Fear of criticism and rejection is at the heart of social anxiety. When you experience social anxiety, you worry about how other people see you and strive to leave a positive impression.

Anxiety, like other emotions, tries to assist you. Your brain uses anxiety to make you aware of a potential threat. Imagine a snake crawling up your arm. The similar goal of social anxiety is to make you aware of potential social dangers. Anything that puts you at risk of rejection, such as being teased or expelled from a group, constitutes a social danger. You pay attention to your surroundings when social anxiety arises because it warns you that there’s a potential you can be rejected at this very moment. You look around the room for faces expressing disapproval, you observe how others are behaving, and you pay close attention to your posture, voice, and facial expressions. Following this fast evaluation, you try to adjust your behavior to blend in and prevent rejection. Voilà! You’re welcome, social anxiety.

You might say that social anxiety has excellent intentions if they were a person. However, social anxiety might be inaccurate at times. This occurs when social anxiety raises red flags for hypothetical social hazards or, even worse, when it sounds constantly everywhere you go.

You might be saying to yourself, “I don’t socialize much, but I don’t mind it.” I simply like to be by myself. This is introversion, which is distinct from social anxiety. Your inclination for socializing—how frequently, with whom, in large or small groups, etc.—depends on your introversion. In contrast, social anxiety is a fear of interacting with others. You can experience social anxiety with or without being introverted, and the opposite is true as well. Shyness, which is when you have some unease or reluctance in a social context, is distinct from social anxiety. It’s normal to experience moments of shyness, such as when you meet new people or do a performance in front of an audience. If you don’t have social anxiety, you can typically overcome shyness fast and still take pleasure in social interactions.

Building solid social connections, giving your all at work and school, and being at ease in your own skin are all hindered by social anxiety. Additionally, it can result in additional mental health issues like substance misuse, depression, and even suicide.

People with social anxiety disorder (SAD) may experience extreme anxiety in numerous social situations. SAD entails chronic, severe anxiety in a variety of social contexts, including:

delivering a speech, putting on a show in front of others, talking to strangers, arranging a date; chitchat; or being seen eating or drinking in public.

These commonplace social interactions seem like chances to fail when you have SAD. Small talk could result in an awkward silence or stumbling over your words; conversing with strangers increases the likelihood that you will say something foolish; going on dates increases your likelihood of being rejected; and eating and drinking in front of others makes you feel as though your every chew and sip is being watched intently.

People with SAD avoid starting or taking part in social contacts because of this fear, even when the settings are significant to them. According to official psychiatric criteria, each of the following symptoms must be present for a diagnosis of SAD to be made:

pronounced, ongoing phobia of social situations, social events that are feared nearly usually cause anxiety. The situation’s fear is excessive compared to the threat it poses, either avoids or endures the conditions with great concern. Your fear and/or avoidance affects key aspects of your life; and
at least six months had passed since the onset of the symptoms.

One of the most prevalent mental ailments worldwide is SAD. At some point throughout their life, about 4% of people worldwide will meet these diagnostic criteria. This equates to about 320 million people based on the 8 billion population projections we currently have.

The good news is that social anxiety is easily managed. There are effective methods to deal with social anxiety, even if it only sometimes manifests or just affects one aspect of your life.

I worked with a lot of teenagers and adults who had social anxiety throughout my years as a clinician, which included a year-long rotation at the McLean psychiatric hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School. I was frequently impressed by the particularity of each person’s circumstance, including the causes of their social anxiety, how it manifested for them, and the coping mechanisms they employed. But what really surprised me was how rapidly they recovered while still receiving the same tried-and-true treatments. Even those who had social anxiety so severe that they were unable to leave their homes improved. To be honest, dealing with social anxiety is not simple. To face your worries head-on requires courage. You could be surprised by how soon you start to feel better and begin living the life you want to live, though, with a little work and assistance.
Things to do

Define your objectives.

Consider what matters to you as a starting point for setting goals as you fight through your social anxiety. Determine the aspects of your social life that need improvement, such as:

discovering a love interest, forming new friendships, increasing one’s voice in group situations, becoming more adamant or encountering new folks.

Your “why” (your objectives) can help you stay motivated and persevere if you remind yourself of them.

Break negative thought patterns

Your ideas about the situations are what actually make you anxious when you have social anxiety, not the situations themselves. Therefore, the next stage is to reflect on and confront your frightened ideas.

Consider that you are about to have lunch with a coworker:

Situation 1. I want to get to know them better, you suppose. You feel happy when you enter the restaurant. You inform one another of recent events in your lives. You depart feeling appreciative.

Situation 2. You feel anxious as you enter the restaurant and think, “I have nothing interesting to say.” Throughout the chat, you remain silent. You depart feeling ashamed.

In both cases, the circumstance (lunch with a coworker) is the same, but your perceptions of what happened are very different. Your behavior (what you say during the discussion) and feelings both during and after the talk are driven by these thoughts.

When you have social anxiety, your outings with friends usually look like Scenario 2. Your perspective on social settings may be extreme (‘Nothing went well’) or extreme (‘My classmates must dislike me because they didn’t include me in a group chat’).

These unfavorable thought patterns might appear prior to, during, and following social events. Even if your negative ideas are occasionally true, repeating them will typically only make you more anxious and put you in a loop of avoidance. Here is how to do it:

Describe a time when you experienced anxiety in a social setting. Detail who, what, when, and where in the following manner: “Party with Sarah at Bentley’s Bar on Friday night.” I’m drinking my drink by myself as I stand alone in the corner.

Describe the bad ideas you have. I’m going to look ridiculous.
Challenge the evidence. Ask yourself, “What evidence does support or refute my negative thoughts?” Remembering how you handled comparable circumstances in the past will help you evaluate the evidence of your current situation more objectively.

I've been made fun of before, which proves the statement "I'm going to make a fool of myself." Or, I have trouble communicating when I'm anxious. 

I don't have a crystal ball, so I can't know for sure if I'll do something foolish, which is evidence against the idea "I'm going to make a fool of myself." Anything is possible. Or: I have control over what I do. I have the option to say or do things that might be warmly received. Or: In the past, I've handled similar social situations well. 

Create a balanced solution. How else could you consider this circumstance? Create a well-rounded argument that takes into account the supporting evidence you provided above and the results you wish to get from the circumstance. Advice: Be practical. Lying to yourself is the quickest way for this to fall apart. I might make an awkward statement, which would be quite embarrassing. However, even if I say a few unpleasant things, I might also say something amusing or fascinating. It's possible that I completely screw up this opportunity. It would hurt if that happened, but it wouldn't be the end of the world. I'll have other chances to meet people, and this one night doesn't define who I am. Whatever the case, worrying about embarrassing myself will only keep me in my head and hinder my ability to meet new friends tonight. 

Improve your conversational abilities

Your ability to converse might be a little rusty if you avoid social situations.

The unpleasant truth is that social anxiety can actually make you more vulnerable to the rejection you fear, therefore improving your social skills is just as crucial as any other strategy for dealing with social anxiety.

Think about going on a date and being anxious about the dreaded awkward silence. You create a list of conversation starters and practice some responses before the date. You are quivering with worry about the conversation fizzling out when you arrive for the date. You keep asking inquiries to your date. You jump in to break the quiet after they pause in their speech, but you unintentionally interrupt them. This is repeated a few times. The flow of the dialogue is staccato.

Your date may take your actions incorrectly and believe that you are trying to control the discussion or don’t care what they have to say. These interpretations are untrue, of course, but your social anxiety is proving them wrong.

Here are three social skills you may develop to increase your social confidence:

Having discussions

A conversation starter demonstrates interest in the other person and what they have to say. However, you might be concerned that you are at a loss for words or for how to convey them. There is no secret codeword to strike up a discussion, so you can relax.

Focus on why you are initiating the discussion rather than how to start one repeatedly. What do you want to get out of this conversation? Choose your first volley from there. The simplest solutions are frequently the best. Focus on topics that people may relate to, such a recent cultural event, an acquaintance, or even the weather.

observing the space

You will be able to handle all kinds of social settings, including knowing when and how to leap into a discussion, if you know how to read the room.

For instance, eye contact typically indicates engagement in Western cultures. Is someone looking at you to show interest in what you’re saying, or are their eyes wandering to the surroundings around them (perhaps signaling boredom), or are they looking at their watch (maybe indicating they want to end it)? Similar to this, an open body posture, friendly smile, or nodding head may show that they are interested in you or your topic, as opposed to a closed-off stance or frown.

There is a crucial caution to keep in mind here: you shouldn’t overly examine a person’s every muscle movement because moods and interests are not always discernible in people. Instead, utilise a person’s body language as a broad indicator of whether you should start and carry on a discussion with them or focus your attention in an other direction.

asking insightful queries

Maintaining the conversation requires asking thoughtful questions. Use the AAA approach:

Attend and try to “actively listen” to what is being said. What are the primary points being made? Do they seem particularly interested in or curious about any particular subjects?
Answer: React to something they said when they stop speaking to show them you were paying attention. Generally speaking, it is preferable to address a key point rather than a side issue, but don’t stress about selecting the ‘right’ subject to address (this doesn’t exist). Choose whatever comes naturally or easily to you.
Ask a follow-up query to demonstrate your interest in knowing more about the person. What was your favorite aspect of your trip? or a more introspective inquiry such, “How did you feel when they said that to you?” could be used as a simple follow-up. Although it is not intended to be formulaic, the AAA technique is one tool for asking insightful questions. If you get sidetracked throughout the talk (some folks like to ramble! ), it doesn’t matter. When it’s your turn to talk, you’ll undoubtedly sound disinterested or unauthentic if you’re preoccupied with trying to recall every word someone else said. Usually, the talks that come organically are the most enjoyable. Do your best to hear and reply to the key points of what is being said in this situation.

Exposure: Try the things you’re afraid of.

Exposure entails purposefully and regularly entering the social situations that you find frightening. Consider exposures as behavioral tests to see if your dreaded worst-case scenario would materialize. Warning: This paragraph contains a spoiler. Exposures operate by demonstrating that your worst-case scenario is unlikely to occur and that the circumstances you fear are probably not as horrible as you initially thought.

The fact that social anxiety is rarely treated with a single encounter is one of its irritating aspects. Instead, you must continue to practice. You will feel better as you expose yourself more.

List all of the social settings that give you anxiety to begin started, such as:

sending a dating app message to a person addressing a complete stranger, going alone to a business happy hour, putting my hand up in class offering an employee constructive criticism.

Write down all the scenarios that occur to mind without filtering them.

Next, rank order each situation from least to most anxiety-provoking by rating it from 0 (no anxiety) to 100 (highest anxiety). Start with a situation that rates lower on your anxiety thermometer for your first exposure effort and gradually work your way up the list as you progress.

Use the procedure listed below, step by step, for each exposure.

Before being exposed:

Determine your primary fear(s). What exact scenario do you fear will occur the most? An example of this may be being called stupid or receiving jeers.
Plan beforehand. Where will the exposure take place? Those who? Prior to scheduling the exposure, various details should be resolved. Planning increases your likelihood of following through.
Set a target that is doable. Make a list of one goal you have for the exposure. Select a method that is objective, such “ask two questions” or “invite them to coffee.” Avoid setting goals based on emotions, such as “don’t get anxious,” as they are impossible to quantify and provide little feedback on the effectiveness of an exposure. You can be really anxious and still engage in productive conversation! Additionally, you shouldn’t set objectives based on how other people see you (such as “appear smart”) because you can’t read people’s minds and can never truly know what they are thinking.

When you were exposed:

Watch out for and get rid of “safety behaviors,” as described by psychologists. Safety behaviors are small actions you take to make yourself feel more secure and avoid confronting your anxieties directly. Examples include checking your phone to avoid engaging in conversation, securely grasping a drink to occupy shaky hands, and avoiding eye contact to avoid being questioned. To feel more at ease in social settings, some people utilize drugs like alcohol or cannabis. For instance, the term “liquid courage” describes the rise in social confidence people experience after consuming alcohol. A person who uses drugs to feel less apprehensive may develop a negative cycle where they feel more dependent on drugs to participate in or enjoy social situations. You must totally engage with the scenario for exposures to function, which requires giving up your safety practices. If not, you train yourself to believe that you can only survive a circumstance if you stay away from particular components of it.

Following your exposure:

Debrief. Respond to two inquiries. Did your worst dread materialize first? The vast majority of the time, it won’t (or you just don’t have enough proof to know whether it did!). What did you take away from the experience, secondly? Write down some observations. You might discover, for instance, that you were less apprehensive than you had anticipated or that you relished a particular interactional moment or moments. You will gradually “unlearn” the terrifying parts of socializing as you repeat repeated exposures and “relearn” new ones, such as how lovely social interactions can be.
Gratify yourself. You probably feel a little worn out from it because you had the courage to confront your anxieties. You deserve a reward. Select a reinforcement-based incentive to add an extra boost of drive to your next exposure.
Prepare for the upcoming exposure. Plan for the subsequent exposure to maintain the current pace. The more time that passes between exposures, the more difficult it will be to resume behavior. Avoidance is anxiety’s closest buddy. Form a habit of exposure. Additionally, if you’re having a lot of trouble starting these exposure exercises, click to the Learn More section below for some extra advice.

In conclusion, you can successfully combat your social anxiety with three strategies: honing your conversational skills, identifying and changing your negative thought patterns, and purposefully engaging in threatening social settings. Keep in mind why you’re doing this and what your life might be like after you conquer your social anxiety while you go through it.
Key ideas: Overcoming social anxiety

Recognize the root causes of social phobia. Social anxiety is fundamentally a fear of being rejected. When you experience social anxiety, you worry about how other people see you and strive to leave a positive impression.
Set goals for yourself. In order to overcome your social anxiety, decide what aspects of your social life you wish to enhance, such as making more friends or speaking up in meetings.
Break negative thought patterns. Your nervousness is fueled by your negative perceptions of social situations. Create a more balanced viewpoint by challenging the supporting evidence for these ideas.
Improve your verbal abilities. Asking smart questions, reading the crowd, and starting conversations are three social skills that can boost your social confidence.
Experiment with the things that frighten you. Participate gradually and methodically in a variety of social situations to gain social skills, understand that your worst-case scenario is probably not going to occur, and appreciate the value of interpersonal connections.

Study more

removing exposure barriers

Practicing “exposures”—intentionally placing yourself in anxiety-inducing social situations—is essential for conquering social anxiety, but as I previously mentioned, getting started may frequently be difficult and frightening. Allow me to assist you in avoiding some of the usual obstacles that individuals run into when performing exposes so that you will be ready for them if they occur.

Your lack of exposure knowledge is the first roadblock.

Try imaginal exposure, in which you fervently picture the frightening scenario. Walk through every possible outcome, including what you may say and do. Make a few iterations so you can be ready for everything that happens. This gives you rehearse facing your concerns in a safe setting and gives you inspiration for when you actually do the expose.

The second obstacle is that you are too tense to begin the expose.

Numerous physical symptoms of anxiety include perspiration, shaking, a racing heart, and muscle strain. Before you engage in social engagement, relaxation techniques might lessen the discomfort and severity of these bodily symptoms. Here are three ways to unwind:

breathe slowly. Rapid, shallow breathing is a symptom of anxiety. Paced breathing is a surprisingly rapid and efficient method to calm anxiety. Five seconds of slow inhalation via the nose, followed by five seconds of gradual exhalation through the mouth. Try breathing rhythmically for six to eight cycles. Make sure your stomach, not your chest, is filled with air when you inhale so it may expand like a balloon. When you exhale, see the balloon gradually deflating.

muscular relaxation in stages. This method calls for gradually switching between tensing and relaxing particular muscles. Squeeze your hand tightly into a fist. Take note of how tense your hand is. After five seconds, carefully release the tension in your hand by opening your fist. Use various muscles to repeat this process.

Use all of your senses. The ‘54321’ approach uses your five senses to bring your attention to the present moment and away from pessimistic thoughts. List the five things you see, the four you feel, the three you hear, the two you smell, and the one you taste. You can also experiment with significant alterations in your sensations, such as dramatically lowering your body’s temperature by submerging your face in freezing water. Your heart rate will decrease and you’ll feel more at ease.

Despite completing several exposures, your anxiety has not decreased.

Remember that exposures only function when they are repeated and consistent. Your anxiety, motivation, and exposure progress will all fluctuate since change is not linear. Unsteady improvement does not imply that you are not. Failures are a necessary component of the path to improvement.

Remind yourself of your motivation-boosting mantra when you start to lose it. Stay true to your values. What matters most to you? What gives you a feeling of significance and purpose? What kind of life do you wish to lead?

Practice realistic self-compassion when you’re feeling down. Like you would a loved one, be kind to yourself and treat yourself decently.

You require assistance

It might be lonely to work on your mental health, and exposure is difficult. Requesting assistance is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Ask a friend or a family member for assistance. They can assist you with exposure planning, model for you, or even participate in the exposure with you.

Working with a mental health expert who can provide constant support and lead you through the exposure process may also be beneficial. You might also think about considering group therapy, where you and a few other people who have anxiety together work on exposures and other social anxiety skills. Consider seeing a psychiatrist or your primary care physician if you think you would benefit from medication, which can be beneficial for treating anxiety.
Books and links

In my TEDx presentation from 2022, “Why You Feel Anxious Socializing (and What to Do About It),” I debunked three common misconceptions about social anxiety and discussed why this disease is becoming more prevalent in society at large. I also provide helpful advice on how to act authentically in any social setting.

Debra Hope, Richard Heimberg, and Cynthia Turk’s book Managing Social Anxiety, Workbook: A Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Approach (3rd ed, 2019) is a valuable tool that offers thorough psychoeducation and doable steps for overcoming social anxiety based on the theories of cognitive behavioural therapy. The book delves deeper into some of the subjects covered in this guide and contains user-friendly activities to expose and fight automatic ideas.

The Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook for Teens: CBT and ACT Skills to Help You Build Social Confidence (2022), written by Jennifer Shannon, is a well-researched and helpful book that assists teenagers in overcoming their social anxiety in order to forge genuine social interactions. The book also offers advice on how to negotiate the social media, perfectionism, and peer comparison worlds and cultivate self-compassion.

The National Social Anxiety Centre in the US gives people with social anxiety access to therapeutic services. They priorities raising public awareness and de-stigmatizing social anxiety and highlight the most recent research on social anxiety disorder (SAD) on their website.

The website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides a wealth of tools for comprehending and managing SAD, including webinars, blogs, and videos. It also contains links for finding online peer-support groups and therapists.

The Andrew Kukes Foundation for Social Anxiety, a US-based nonprofit, works to advance SAD diagnosis and care. Their website is especially beneficial because it offers information on how to support a loved one who is experiencing social anxiety.

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