People with social anxiety are sometimes perceived as being simply shy or unfriendly. The reality is that it’s an anxiety disorder that’s not always obvious to people interacting with someone with social anxiety. People with social anxiety want to make friends, want to interact with people, and be included in groups. They just struggle to overcome their social anxiety.
If you’re reading this and think or know that you’re struggling with social anxiety, you might relate. It’s not like you don’t know your anxiety is irrational or uncontrollable. It’s just that these feelings that come up during social interactions are chronic.
Medication is an option but only an option that temporarily changes the brain’s chemistry to reduce anxiety. It doesn’t necessarily provide a permanent fix. There are treatments that take more work, but provide a permanent solution.
What is social anxiety
Social anxiety is a condition in which sufferers fear social settings, and feel self-conscious during social interactions. The fear of these situations brings feelings of anxiety around lacking confidence, feeling judged, being embarrassed. Around 7% of people in the United States suffer from social anxiety.
For some, after a day of social interactions, it can feel like they’ve been drained of all their mental and physical energy. It can be exhausting and cause people who suffer from social anxiety to just want to go home and be alone for a while, while they recharge their batteries.
For others, it can feel like they’re constantly on stage. Do you remember how it feels while you’re doing public speaking? Just imagine that as a constant for someone with social anxiety.
How to overcome shyness and social anxiety
The good news about social anxiety is that it can be treated and overcome. Unlike other forms of anxiety that can only be managed, with enough treatment and time, many sufferers can reduce the levels of anxiety the feel during social settings.
Here are 6 effective ways to help treat and overcome your shyness and social anxiety.
1. Seek professional help
Above everything else, it’s always a good idea to seek professional help if it’s available to you, and before seeking any self-directed options.
The first reason is that while you can get a lot of helpful information online, the best solution is the solution that has the most context to your unique situation. Advice you find online or in a book will be generalized in the hopes that it serves the most people. But the reality is your situation and social anxiety is unique.
A professional will be able to personally evaluate your situation, your struggle, and the intensity of your social anxiety.
However, the irony of this is someone who struggles with social anxiety might have a lot of trouble leaving the house or speaking to someone in person. Fortunately, there are online alternatives that can serve as a start to receiving some professional help.
Always seek this option first if your condition is debilitating or extreme.
Exposure or exposure therapy is the idea of practicing and habituating yourself to get used to the source of anxiety, in this case, social settings and socializing.
The easiest and safest way is in really small doses.
Of course, your instinct might be to avoid social situations and social interactions, but with exposure, you can begin to become more comfortable in these situations, or at the very least, not experience as much anxiety as you might usually.
To start, choose a situation that gives you a little anxiety but you still usually try to avoid. Next time you’re in this situation, try to stay in this situation a little longer than you usually do. See how long it takes until your anxiety subsides or decreases.
If it doesn’t or you become overwhelmed by the situation, stop, and try again next time.
Ideally, you should start by targeting things you’re comfortable that you will succeed in.
3. Start small and work your way up
Overcoming your social anxiety doesn’t happen by going to a large party and socializing with every person there.
Take small steps and work your way up to the biggest challenge you face that brings you the most social anxiety.
To start, think about all the social situations and interactions you’ve had or will have and list them out. From here, rank them from the ones that give you the least amount of anxiety to the ones that are the most challenging for you.
Start with the tasks on the top of the list and work your way down. This doesn’t need to be done all in one day or even in one month. Set a goal for the year to go through each of these this year.
If you need some ideas for icebreakers, start with a task such as “ask the next cashier how their day is going” or “have a quick phone call with a close friend or family member”.
4. Don’t take yourself so seriously
Part of the anxiety that comes with being in a social setting is worrying about things such as what people think of you, trying not to embarrass yourself, and hoping you come across a certain way in conversations and interactions with other people.
This all stems from how seriously we take ourselves.
When you embarrass yourself, there’s two ways you can respond to and interpret it.
The first is by feeling guilty or ashamed by it, ruminating on it, and carrying that embarrassment around for the rest of the day or even longer. The other way is to simply brush it off, laugh at it, and downplay it.
Having a sense of humor about yourself and being self-deprecating is a form of confidence that many people will appreciate it, as well as make it easier to deal with the anxiety.
It’s a great way to defuse awkward feelings but also not take the anxiety you feel too seriously, so it doesn’t exacerbate into something worse.
Visualization is a practice that allows you to imagine social situations before they happen, in their ideal state. For example, some athletes use this to visualize themselves nailing the game winning shot before heading onto the court.
For you, you don’t need to visualize yourself hitting the game winning shot. Instead, before walking into a party, visualize yourself at this party in your happiest state, confidently interacting with different people.
Imagine yourself making people smile. Picture people engaged with you as you speak. See people speaking to you passionately. Imagine yourself without any nerves, confidently enjoying yourself.
These kinds of visualizations can help you build up some confidence.
Meditation is a way to help deal with the symptoms of your social anxiety (such as the anxiety itself) or as a way to help prepare yourself to deal with social situations and interactions with other people.
A Vipassana practice that teaches you to focus on the breath can help you better manage your anxiety when it comes. It allows you to focus your attention on the present moment and the moment around you, instead of letting your mind wander to thoughts and feelings around anxiety, feeling judged, and self-consciousness.
Remember that it’s also normal to feel a little anxious in strange or uncommon social situations. Even the most confident people experience some social anxiety here and there. The goal is not to completely eliminate it. The goal should be to make social situations at least much more bearable, if not, very enjoyable.