I’m seven minutes late to the social anxiety support group I’m attending for the first time. I’ve never met the group’s organizer or its participants. I expected to walk into a stark conference room where I’d be forced to wear a name tag, or find myself in a circle of metal folding chairs in a church basement, my eyes glued to the clock. I open the door to a 12th-floor office in a swanky midtown Manhattan high-rise and discover an Instagram-worthy space with a view of the New York City skyline.
The room is color-coordinated with a cozy gray couch, a beautiful, black and white canvas print of the city, an iMac computer, classy bookshelves, a wall of degrees in matching black frames, even an old-fashioned typewriter. The place is small but elegant. Social anxiety can clean up nicely, I realize, just like I did in the bathroom stop that made me late, in which I ran a brush through my hair, touched up my foundation, and applied a light shade of mauve gloss over my lips.
Everything in the room was in its place—but still, I expected to feel out of place. My anxiety is more related to deadlines than social situations. Even though I can’t control how an editor or reader perceives a story I’ve written, I often let my fear of being judged harshly lead to procrastination. This fear spills over to relationships, too: Sometimes I struggle with how others perceive me. But I don’t identify as shy—which is what I thought defined social anxiety—so I wasn’t sure this was the right group for me. (Psst! If you’re in a situation that is anxiety-producing, check out these effective ways to slay social anxiety. My favorite is number six.)
I opt for one of the black chairs—I’m not ready to plop down on a couch next to strangers. Our host, Carla Mannino, a psychotherapist and founder of Gotham Psychology, has a question for the 40-something man on the couch: What is the most distressing thing you are facing today? He mentions depression and a struggle to keep up with his routine. Hmm, I struggle to keep a routine too. I keep quiet and listen. Then a woman in her 50s reveals that she’s dealt with anxiety since her 20s and tells the group that she’s a successful advertising professional who gets incredibly nervous at work. This sounds a little bit like my deadline issue.
As I was looking for a group to attend, I was floored by all the options. There are over 900 groups on Meetup.com that have the tag, “social anxiety.” One New York City support group has over 13,000 members. While many groups state their purpose as facilitating friendships, sharing stories, and learning social skills, there are others for people socially anxious about board games, Tai Chi, or Ultimate Frisbee. I opted to check out a structured support group mediated by a psychologist because I wanted a discussion-based environment that would allow me to ease in. Plus my Frisbee skills are lacking—though it would be a nice way to connect.
Between our tales of woe, Mannino shared one-liners like: “Don’t punish yourself, reward yourself,” and “know what you’re avoiding.” Her tweetable wisdom spoke to me. She asked rhetorically, “Anyone avoiding the gym?” I raised my hand—I haven’t been exercising as much as I’d like to, especially since it’s a fantastic way to curb anxiety. I saw one participant crack a smile at my disclosure.
I was wondering what I’d get out of this meeting—and soon I was overwhelmed: There was a tornado of solutions coming from everyone in the room. Who is using Headspace, the meditation app? What about the app, Calm? Someone referenced books by spiritual self-help author, Joel Osteen; another person brought up the value of volunteering. My head swirled. At first, the emphasis on solutions was a turnoff. I wanted acknowledgment or understanding. I wanted the comfort of feeling like I wasn’t weird for struggling with anxiety. But the enthusiasm in the room was contagious, and I felt emboldened to take action. I would go home, sauté kale, reply to every email in my inbox, and then head straight to the gym. I felt like I was going to wake up the next morning and knock out my to-do list like never before.
Mannino said the altruistic element in the group is actually a key self-healing technique. By offering suggestions to others, we can help ourselves. It feels good to point someone in the right direction, she says. I asked her if she runs the clinic in the hopes of landing new clients. She told me that she does occasionally see members, but that the group, which has been meeting for eight years, is pro-bono and offers a chance for people without insurance to seek treatment. Several of the people in attendance mentioned financial struggles and job searches—it’s nice that this care is available to people who need it.
One man in the group talked about going to a cuddle party, an open-to-the-public event where participants engage in non-sexual affection. He was fed up with a lack of close intimacy in his life, and thought this might be a solution. It wasn’t: He felt left out. It seemed like everyone at the party was connecting but him. The experience brought up hurtful memories of feeling disconnected in high school. I found myself wanting to comfort him, but I remembered what Ali M. Mattu, PhD, host of The Psych Show and cognitive-behavioral therapist at Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CUCARD), told me: Don’t fall into the trap of providing over-reassurance in a group meeting. Some comforting words can help at the beginning of treatment, but as one continues to seek real change, they must learn to live with anxiety. Mattu runs weekly groups at CUCARD that focus on learning to cope with social anxiety through social exposure, peer feedback, and even improv. “Sharing a vulnerable moment from one’s life is often a sign of progress,” he says. “It’s about sitting with the situation and letting people respond to you.”
The meeting definitely altered my outlook. The day after, I found myself talking to the attractive barista at my local coffee shop. I’ve noticed him for months but had never said hello—including the time we sat side-by-side for over an hour. He asked what I was up to and I told him that I was writing an article on social anxiety. A day earlier, I might have said, “I’m writing a piece on health,” in order to avoid scrutiny. Being honest led him to tell me about his own struggles with social connection. He’s an actor who is comfortable on stage but freezes up around new people. I left our interaction feeling a flutter of hope and excitement. Going to the group allowed me to be more aware of my own social anxiety. I thought all I needed was a little bit of empathy, but now I want growth more than anything. I’m more open to taking action.
I just have to remember that I will have setbacks. Let’s say the cute barista wasn’t interested in chatting, sending me clear signals with short answers and checking his phone. Thanks to the group, I’m already able to grasp that this wouldn’t be a verdict on my desirability (or lack thereof), and it shouldn’t keep me from striking up conversations in the future. The point is to deal with positive and negative feedback. Mattu advocates a realistic approach to managing social anxiety. He says, “We don’t want to give the message that everything is going to be OK. It’s not always. We are always going to be dealing with tough social situations. You can learn how to navigate. You can learn how to grow.”
If you’d like to try a social anxiety group, here are some places to start: Meetup, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), and 7 Cups of Tea. If you’re not ready for a group, these tricks to calm down your mind could help nix anxious thoughts.