You walk into the party and there it is again — that awful tight feeling in your chest. Everybody is looking at you (well, that’s what it feels like anyway), and all of the sudden you don’t remember the normal way to move your arms, or smile, or have a conversation. You’re blushing or sweating, and you can’t think of anything other than to get out of here fast, or better yet to just disappear entirely.
If you know exactly what I’m talking about here, there’s a good chance you have social anxiety.
Let me assure you that you’re not alone — many adults struggle with social anxiety regularly. For some the anxiety is confined to specific experiences like public speaking, and for others the situation is so severe that it feels hard to even leave home.
These are the steps I recommend you take if you’re working on getting past social anxiety and feeling able to tackle more experiences in life.
Manage anxiety at the body level
Your first priority should be practicing how to lower your anxiety response at the body level. If your nervous system is too impacted by your fears (which may manifest as your heart racing super fast or feeling like you’re frozen in place), you’ll likely be too caught up in that experience to utilize any other coping mechanisms.
Strategies to help reduce the physical experience of anxiety include:
- Grounding in your environment (intentionally taking notice of what you see, hear, smell, and feel)
- Slow, deep breathing
- Standing on your toes for about 20 seconds, and then letting your heels drop
- Look at a fixed point on your far left for about 20 seconds, and then do the same on your far right
Challenge thoughts ahead of time
Practice challenging unhelpful or inaccurate negative thought patterns before you are in a social situation that makes you anxious. Get comfortable with replacing those thoughts with affirming messages, such as:
- “I am a great person to get to know, and I have a lot to offer”
- “Everyone isn’t looking at me; people are paying attention to their own conversations and concerns”
- “I’m not the only person here who feels a little awkward and uncomfortable”
- “No one is going to remember that I mispronounced that word - I don’t need to dwell on it either”
It’s important to start getting these thoughts to feel more normalized, so that you can reach for them more easily when your social anxiety goes up. The positive thoughts still might not feel like second nature, but they can guide you to move forward instead of allowing your social anxiety to shut you down.
Practice exposure therapy
Although preparing your regulation skills and thought responses can help, and at the end of the day there’s no getting around this reality — to get over anxiety, you have to actually face it.
Start with small doses of anxiety and work yourself up to bigger ones. Make a list of various social situations that make you uncomfortable or anxious, like communicating with the cashier when you’re checking out at the supermarket, going to lunch with a group of friends, giving a presentation at work, or showing up to an event where you don’t know anybody. Rate each item on your list as low, medium, or high.
Start challenging yourself to work your way through your list, practicing the low situations before going on to the medium situations, and then finally the situations that typically trigger high anxiety. Taking this route helps you gradually build tolerance and confidence. Ultimately, as you approach the end of your list you’ll have learned that you can face your fears.
Name the elephant in the room
I’ve noticed that for people struggling with social anxiety, often the most exhausting aspect is simply the pressure they put on themselves to not appear anxious in a social situation. I encourage you to release yourself from that demand! Accepting and owning the fact that you’re anxious can allow you to shift your focus away from your internal turmoil and toward the social situation you’re experiencing.
If you’re chatting to someone you’ve just met at a party, it’s OK to say “I might seem a little fidgety, it’s because I tend to get nervous at large gatherings like this”. The vast majority of people will be understanding and supportive. In fact, you might even find the person you’re speaking with feels just the same way as you.
There are a few errors I frequently see people make when trying to manage social anxiety. The first one is perhaps the most obvious - relying on drugs or alcohol to cope. Drugs and alcohol don’t truly diminish your anxiety, it’s more like they take you away from anxiety. Without experiencing the anxiety, your body and mind don’t learn that social situations are actually OK, and that your anxiety won’t kill you. Therefore, you simply create a cycle where you continuously need to drink or use to feel all right in social settings.
I’m not a big fan of the advice of signing up for a role in a social event to help you feel more comfortable. It’s a subtle form of avoidance. Your brain switches modes from “I’m experiencing a social interaction” to “I’m completing this task”. Again, this ultimately takes you away from the experience of anxiety without really needing to face it.
Finally, conquering social anxiety can be particularly difficult if you also struggle with social skills. If this is the case for you, don’t forget to address this too. Make sure you are learning and practicing social skills alongside challenging your social anxiety, so that when you are in social situations they can be increasingly enjoyable and successful.
Getting more help
Challenging your social anxiety is hard work. Therapy can help you strengthen the skills you need, stay motivated to keep working on your goals, and process any stress or difficult emotions that come up along the way. I’m ready to help — click the button below to set up a free phone consultation. I’d love to hear more about where you’re struggling, and how you’d like to see yourself grow.