7 Strategies to Manage Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is more than just shyness. Learn how therapists overcome social anxiety to turn a dread of going out into social excitement.
Do tonight’s happy hour plans send you into an uncomfortable sweat? Trigger worries about what your friends think about you? Form a knot in your stomach that makes you want to cancel… again? About 12% of US adults experience similar signs of social anxiety disorder, a persistent fear of social embarrassment and judgment that interferes with daily life, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The steps to overcome that social anxiety might feel daunting—but it could be easier than you think.
Spending time alone or even canceling plans on occasion isn’t inherently bad, explains clinical psychologist Elena Walsh, PhD. For instance, you may feel drained from the week due to a heavy workload or too many social activities and realize you’ll feel more rejuvenated spending time alone.
But if you’re turning down opportunities to socialize, despite wanting more connection in your life, social anxiety may be at play. And while it can feel good in the moment, avoiding social settings will not only worsen this anxiety, it can lead to social isolation and missed opportunities for positive social interactions, says Amira Martin, LCSW-R, a therapist and lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work.
The experts say that most forms of anxiety don’t just go away with time or age. Yet with a bit of practice, you can overcome social anxiety by understanding your triggers and training your thought processes with these strategies to manage social anxiety.
1. Challenge thought distortions
Thought distortions cause us to interpret experiences in ways that don’t represent reality—and as these patterns are usually tinted with a negative bias, they tend to fuel anxieties. One common social anxiety thought distortion is “mind reading,” assuming you know what someone is thinking about you, Dr. Walsh says.
“Inviting some doubt into these types of distorted thought patterns can help loosen their grip on you and your emotions,” she explains. “So if you are convinced that someone thinks you are an idiot after a recent conversation, you would start by labeling that as mind reading and go on to remind yourself that you actually cannot be sure what someone thinks about you or is thinking unless they tell you.”
2. Reframe negative self-talk
Another common thought distortion is discounting the positive—a pattern that often surfaces in the form of negative self-talk. Positive self-talk is a tool that can be trained, however, and according to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, even small shifts in self-talk language positively influences thought regulation, feelings, and behavior under social stress.
The key is to pay attention to what you’re thinking about yourself and practice replacing negative thoughts with a positive undertone, Martin says. For example, if you catch yourself thinking: “I will never be able to socialize like a normal person,” replace that thought with: “I know this is hard for me right now but, with time and practice, I will get better at it.”
3. Get grounded
Grounding techniques are mental or physical exercises that can be effective tools for managing social anxiety, Martin says. “[They] help individuals stay present and focused on the moment, reduce negative thoughts and emotions, and cultivate a greater sense of calm and well-being.”
Practicing these techniques throughout your day and when you’re feeling distressed can bring your attention into the present moment in a non-judgmental way, quelling anxious thoughts:
Deep breathing: Taking slow, deep breaths to calm the body and reduce stress.
Sensory grounding: Focusing on physical sensations, such as the feel of the ground beneath your feet or the sensation of your breath moving in and out of your body.
Mental grounding: Reciting a comforting phrase or reminding oneself of important facts or details about the present moment.
Visualization: Imagining a calming or peaceful scene, such as a beach or forest, to help reduce stress.
4. Set small goals
Martin says another strategy to overcome social anxiety is to set small, achievable goals for social interactions, such as initiating a conversation with one person or attending a social event for a limited amount of time. “Additionally, it can be helpful to practice social skills, such as active listening and assertiveness, to increase confidence in social situations.”
5. Do it anyway
“It can feel so good in the moment to cancel, no-show, or leave early, but ultimately this only reinforces our anxiety because we’re teaching ourselves that we don’t have the fortitude to withstand social situations,” says Lauren Cook, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the September 2023 book Generation Anxiety.
“In contrast, when you do it anyway, your brain is typically learning that nothing bad actually happened, which in turn decreases your fear reaction to future social situations,” Dr. Walsh explains.
6. Embrace imperfection
“Remind yourself that others are often just as nervous as you are,” Dr. Cook says. Social anxiety gets us so caught up in our own heads—worried that people are judging us—when in reality, others are preoccupied with themselves, too. “Also, remember that people gravitate more toward imperfect people,” she adds. “So give yourself grace if you’re a little awkward—people often have more compassion and connection to that than with someone who acts like they’re perfect all the time.”
7. Try CBT
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (with a mental health professional) is an evidence-based treatment to overcome social anxiety that focuses on identifying and challenging negative thoughts and beliefs related to social situations, Martin says. “When we can build awareness of our unhelpful thoughts, especially when we try to mind read and falsely believe others don’t like us, we can make different choices so that our anxiety doesn’t win,” adds Dr. Cook. “The more we do this, the more we realize just how capable we are.”
Elena Walsh, PhD, clinical psychologist with Choosing Therapy
Amira Martin, LCSW-R, a therapist and lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work
Lauren Cook, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of the upcoming book Generation Anxiety
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: "Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters"
National Institute of Mental Health: "Social Anxiety Disorder"