10 Small (but Effective!) Ways to Slay Social Anxiety
At home and on social media, you’re an extroverted rockstar. In public, you dodge eye contact and handshakes and get a little too excited about cancelled plans. Here's how to start finding a happy medium.
What is social anxiety?
If you have an extreme fear of being judged in social situations, if you have a sadistic focus on all the things that can go wrong—nervously blurting out everything you never wanted to say aloud just to fill conversational lulls, or if you scrutinize all the awkward things you think you did or said after the fact, you could have social anxiety. Social anxiety is the number one mental health issue in North America, affecting 15 million American adults. A little social anxiety is normal for everyone, but when it becomes abnormal, it’s a self-serving narcissist hell-bent on your full attention. Social anxiety is especially tough to manage because it’s not just one thing. And it’s a bit contradictory—you have a general distaste for peopling, but also an internal need for … people. But on your terms, and in limited doses.
Social anxiety is contagious. Sort of. Researchers are learning that anxiety disorders run in families, and that they have a biological basis, much like allergies and diabetes. Anxiety disorders typically develop from a complex set of risk factors that include genetics, brain chemistry, personality, and life experiences. Anxiety, which is equally common among men and women, typically begins around age 13. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about one-third of those with a disorder receive treatment.
All of this supports a rationale for keeping a blank social calendar from an underground doomsday bunker. However, you can get out there and actually enjoy it! Here’s how.
Throw a counterpunch
Do not give in to what the anxiety is driving you to do. Instead, acknowledge it, and say, “Hey, inner angst, I’m the shot caller and I came to party!” Whatever it is that counters the anxiety, do it. Each time you parry your fear, you are “rewiring” your brain and weakening anxiety’s hold on you. According to Robert Leahy, PhD, author and clinical professor of psychology at Weill-Cornell Medical School, social anxiety that’s left untreated is associated with an increased risk for alcohol abuse, depression, loneliness, decreased occupational advancement and the increased likelihood of remaining single. That’s no way to live! And that’s why it’s so important to feel and face your anxiety. You can actually do things while anxious and realize that nothing bad happens. (These mini meditations can relieve anxiety along the way.)
Many studies demonstrate the success of exposure-based therapies for anxiety disorders, according to a large research review by Johanna S. Kaplan, PhD, and David F. Tolin, PhD, published in Psychiatric Times. We tend to avoid what frightens us and, in turn, are frightened by what we avoid. To begin to remedy this negative cycle, you can safely expose yourself to your triggers by creating an exposure hierarchy. Write down scenarios that cause you anxiety in order of severity. Perform the easiest behavior first, and gradually move down the list. Your hierarchy might start with asking a stranger for directions and end with asking your boss for a raise. It doesn’t matter if your boss laughs you out the door. It matters that you actually asked. Social anxiety wants you timid and poor, but you can outsmart it. Here are trusted home remedies to soothe anxiety.
According to Mark Tyrell, therapist and co-founder of Uncommon Knowledge, asking questions makes for great social lubricant when you otherwise have nothing to say in a social setting. Ask open-ended questions such as, “How do you know the host?” Alternatively, try soliciting advice, asking something like, “Anyone seen any good movies lately?” Ask follow-up questions that take the conversation deeper. Asking where the restroom or vodka is located, or when the party ends doesn’t count. These magic phrases can save an awkward conversation.
Give yourself license to chill
The more you worry and let anxiety rule your life, the more you wire your brain to continue worrying and being anxious—and the more you mentally link anxiety to specific places or events. In Psychology Today, Eric R. Maisel PhD, suggests using a visualization technique to lessen anxiety: Create a mental picture of relaxing. It could be at a beach sunset, watching trees gently sway in a breeze, leaves falling silently in your backyard. It could be the rhythmic swaying of a hammock under a blue sky with the chirping of birds in the background. When you visualize relaxing, try to engage your other senses as well. What does the place smell and feel like? What do you hear? Do it every day for long enough that it becomes as natural as staring at your smartphone.
Plug your nose
Try alternate nostril breathing, or yogic breathing. This is a simple, natural breathing technique from Ayurvedic medicine that brings the body and mind into a state of balance and neutrality. It’s been used by elite athletes for decades for managing stress and anxiety. Close one nostril by placing your thumb gently over it. Exhale; then inhale through the uncovered nostril. After each inhale/exhale (a breath cycle), switch sides. Then, leading with your out-breath, do one out-breath followed by one in-breath through each nostril. Repeat this series, alternating nostrils after each inhalation. It will likely be easier to breathe through one nostril than the other—that’s normal. Here’s how breathwork can make you more mindful.
Pump-up your jam
According to Dr. Lisa Legault of Clarkson University, using self-affirmations actually produces measurable results. Pick a mantra, slogan, or verse to psych yourself up for an event, a performance, or just to walk into a party without sweating. Psalm 55:22 is an example of calming scripture: “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.” Or take your inspiration from AC/DC’s lyric: “For those about to rock, we salute you.” Find your own song or chant that calms or inspires confidence as you head to a gathering or performance. Remember, anticipation of a worrisome social situation is usually worse than the actual event. Try some of these calming mantras on for size.
Boo is the cruel cynic in your head constantly booing you—filling you with worry and doubt. Like the caricature of a critical mother-in-law, but invisible. Counter Boo’s negative rants with truths such as, “you are more than capable of nailing the upcoming marathon/wedding toast/hostage negotiation,” “there are at least as many reasons things will go right for you,” and “you are competent, skilled, and deserve to be happy! Psychologist Ben Martin, PsyD, presents four main types of challenging questions to ask yourself every time you have a negative thought: (1) What evidence do you have for this thinking? (2) Are there any other ways you could look at this situation? (3) Is this situation as bad as you’re making it out to be? And, (4) What can you do to help yourself solve the problem or to feel better? Here are more ways to stop the negative self-talk, which is a fancy term for that Boo in your head.
Stop giving a #%@! what others think
Social anxiety is tied to feelings of being judged. But the truth is that the judgements and opinions of others have no reflection on your worth or talents. Social anxiety treatment includes learning to be flawed, while at the same time rejecting the need for approval from external sources. Being a perfectionist is fine in rocket science, but not in real life. According to an American Psychological Association study, we consistently overestimate how much, and how badly, others think of us, causing us to be more inhibited and less impulsive and happy than we could be.
Press a lever for a snack
Rather than berating yourself after each social interaction, reward yourself instead. Not with rounds of tequila or tattoos. But commend yourself for attending the event, for being present, and for facing down your anxiety. Each time you counter your anxiety, you whittle away at its power over you, while gaining confidence to step in the ring again. You are taking your life back one endeavor at a time. A tenet of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is the importance of rewarding yourself for exposing yourself to your fears. You deserve the praise, and you will be more motivated to do it again if there are some self-high-fives or frozen yogurts on the back end.
Phone a freud
If anxiety disrupts your life or daily activities, make an appointment with your doctor or a mental health provider because you may need treatment to get better. Like a receding hairline, social anxiety happens gradually and initially without much notice. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for social anxiety. Self-medicating is not. Here’s how to find a mental health professional you can trust. Anxiety hates to dance. So get out there and dance.
Jon Patrick Hatcher is author of 101 Ways to Conquer Teen Anxiety, In Case of Anxiety…, and Breaking-Up Badly.