Top tips to help you deal with social anxiety
The past few months have seen us gradually moving out of lockdown in England. Many people have embraced the opportunities now open to us to see people, catch up with family and friends, and have those long overdue hugs. For others, the prospect of going out socially was extremely anxiety-provoking and filled them with dread. For some, social anxiety continues to linger and, if you are in this category, please know that you are not alone.
What is social anxiety?
Social anxiety is nervousness in social situations. Social anxiety disorder is an anxiety disorder characterised by a significant amount of fear in one or more social situations combined with a fear of being judged by others.
- worrying about everyday activities that involve interacting with other people
- avoiding social situations
- physical symptoms, such as panic attacks
- avoiding eye contact
- low self-esteem
However, connection with others is vital for our well-being and survival. Social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us to regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and improve our immune systems. By neglecting our need to connect, we put both our physical and psychological health at risk.
So how can you overcome social anxiety to enable you to receive all the benefits of human connection? Here are 13 top tips to help you.
1. Identify triggers
Social anxiety does not show up in the same way for everyone. Pinpointing when and why you feel most anxious can help you take the first steps towards finding solutions. Keeping a journal of your trigger situations and the physical symptoms that you experience during those situations can help you to deal with them more effectively.
2. Take small steps
It’s perfectly fine to start with little changes. For example, make small talk with a shopping cashier, complement a co-worker on their outfit, start by meeting friends or family online before you meet them in person. You can also role-play with people you trust to help alleviate the potential negative outcomes that you are worried about.
3. Challenge negative thinking
Chances are, you spend a lot of time worrying about what could go wrong. You might worry about accidentally saying something offensive, embarrassing yourself in some way or fear being judged by others.
When you begin to feel overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, try challenging them and replacing them with more realistic ones. Keep things in perspective and remember, even if you do make a social blunder, chances are that people will offer empathy and compassion.
Instead of worrying about what could go wrong, start focusing on what could go right.
4. Acknowledge your fears
It’s perfectly OK to say, “I am nervous” and, if people know that you are struggling, they are more likely to be helpful. Also remember, there will be other people who feel exactly the same as you do so, by acknowledging your nerves, you may create opportunities to make deeper connections with others.
5. Put pen to paper
Another great way of acknowledging your fears is to write them down. On a piece of paper, write down all of the negative and fearful thoughts, feelings and behaviours that you have. Read through them, at the same time imagining a loved one had written them. Then provide yourself with the same kind words of encouragement and advice that you would give to your loved one.
You can also reframe all of the fearful thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Write the positive statements and words on a separate piece of paper and then safely burn the original. Notice the differences in yourself afterwards.
6. Stop trying to be perfect
Perfectionism and social anxiety often go hand in hand. Everything that you say and do does not have to be perfect. Make a point of being imperfect and taking chances for a day.
7. Cherish alone time
Some people with social anxiety are natural introverts. You don’t have to be a social butterfly to overcome social anxiety. Be comfortable with who you are and, if you recharge your emotional batteries by spending time alone rather than in the company of others, continue to do this. However, rather than alone time being due to fear, make it an active, healthy, self-aware choice.
8. Work with your strengths
Putting yourself out there socially involves stepping out of your comfort zone initially. Start socialising through subject areas you are interested in, so there is still an element of comfort.
For example, if you are an avid book reader, join a book club. If you enjoy gaming, play games online with other people.
Bring sociability into your comfort zones.
9. Accept responsibility for your future
There are often several contributing factors to social anxiety disorder, which include genetic predisposition, past events and environment. What happened in your past and your social anxiety are not your fault or responsibility. However, overcoming social anxiety and your journey of healing is your responsibility. When you accept full responsibility for your future, you start to notice what is in your control and what you can do.
10. Be accountable to someone
Set yourself outcomes and goals and hold yourself to account with someone. It can be more difficult to overcome your social anxiety if you do not have someone to check in with in terms of your goals, your progress, and someone to motivate you when the going gets tough. Choose someone you trust. It could be someone in your personal life or you may choose to hire the help of a professional.
11. Join a support group
Whether you join a face to face or online group, being in the company of others who can relate to what you are going through and understand your struggles is extremely comforting. You can motivate and be kind to each other. “Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter” - Izaak Walton.
12. Practice, practice, practice
In order to maintain the progress that you have made, you need to practice your new skills on a regular basis. Any new habit or behaviour takes 21 plus days to fully embed, as new neural pathways are formed in the brain. Similar to building muscle memory from physical exercise, you need to build mental memory and make the new skills a habit.
Also, remember that lapse can be a normal part of the Cycle of Change (Prochaska and Diclemente). If old behaviours start to creep back in (which can happen during times of stress), contact your accountability buddy, review your progress, set goals, and practice, practice, practice!
13. Celebrate your success
All too often, we don’t take time to celebrate our success. And it is so important. Acknowledgement of what you are doing well and rewarding yourself will help to motivate you and make all your efforts seem more worthwhile. Make it fun.
One idea is to write down lots of different rewards on paper, fold them up, put them in a jar and then do a lucky dip when you have achieved a goal. Change can be hard at times and you deserve to reward yourself.
Now go take control of that anxiety and get socialising!