It is normal to feel nervous or anxious in social situations from time to time. Social anxiety, however, is more than just shyness or nerves. Social anxiety can cause panic. Even just thinking about meeting or mingling with others can cause a pounding heart, dry mouth, shaky voice, rapid breathing, sweating, blushing, an upset stomach – no wonder it sometimes feels easier to avoid other people all together. However, you can learn to be comfortable in social situations.
If you suffer from social anxiety, try these ten strategies – provided by London Life Coach and Social Anxiety specialist Klear Minds - to help you cope.
- Better Understand Your Social Anxiety
People with social anxiety tend to fear different types of social situations (e.g., talking to co-workers, speaking in a meeting, going to parties, etc.) and experience different physical symptoms of anxiety (e.g., blushing, sweating, increased heart rate, etc.). Get to know your social anxiety. Take a couple of weeks to notice which situations cause you anxiety and what you experience physically when you are in those situations. It is a lot easier to manage your anxiety when you have a better understanding of it.
- Learn to Relax
You can “turn down the volume” on the physical symptoms of anxiety by learning to relax. A strategy that you can use to calm down quickly is “calm breathing”. We tend to breathe faster when we are anxious. This can make us feel dizzy and lightheaded, which can make us even more anxious. Calm breathing involves taking slow, regular breaths through your nose. Another helpful strategy is to learn to relax your body. This involves tensing various muscles and then relaxing them. This strategy can help lower overall tension and stress levels, which can contribute to anxiety when in social situations.
- Question Negative Thoughts
Social anxiety sufferers often have negative thoughts and beliefs that contribute to their anxiety. Try to identify the automatic negative thoughts that underlie your fear of social situations. Then, analyze and challenge them. By evaluating your negative thinking, you may realise that some of the things you fear are very unlikely to actually happen, or that if something does happen it’s not as bad as you may think and that you can cope.
- Notice Your Surroundings
Anxiety turns your attention inward. You notice your heart racing or worry that your hands are shaking. This is certain to increase your anxiety. So, it makes sense to focus outward more to lower anxiety. When in social situations, make a mental note of the surroundings you're in. For example… the colour of the walls, carpet or any pictures on the walls - this may seem strange, but it will get you used to focusing away from yourself and interrupt the anxiety cycle.
- Pay Attention to Others
Social anxiety has us worrying what other people think of us, so instead - focus on other people. If you're talking to someone, concentrate on what he or she is saying. Ask open questions which require more than just a "yes" or "no" answer. Make a point of remembering what they tell you, and refer back to it later to demonstrate you were interested enough to take it in. It's also nice for the other person, which means you might accidentally make a new friend as a 'by-product' of this strategy.
- Face Your Fears
Avoiding feared social situations is a very effective strategy because it reduces anxiety in the short-term. However, this strategy prevents you from learning that your fears could be unlikely to actually happen, or aren’t as bad as you think, and can actually increase your fear in the long-term. Therefore, an important step in managing your social anxiety is to face the situations that you have been avoiding because of social fears. Repeatedly facing those situations reduces distress in the long-term and helps build up confidence.
- Eliminate Subtle Safety Behaviours
Rather than completely avoiding social situations, some people engage in subtle safety behaviours to prevent their feared expectations from coming true. For example, trying to stay in the background on social occasions; remaining quiet during group conversations; sticking closely beside those they know well; avoiding eye contact or drinking alcohol for extra courage. We are often unaware of the things we do in social situations to feel safer. So, for the next few weeks pay close attention to the things you do to protect yourself in social situations and try and modify or eliminate these behaviours.
- Develop New Friendships
People with social anxiety often have a hard time developing new relationships. A good way to develop friendships is to seek out opportunities for repeated contact. For example, join a club or organization (hiking club, singles group). Volunteer at a community centre or charitable organization. Play a team sport (badminton, soccer). If you make an attempt to make new friends and it doesn’t work out, keep trying. It takes time to develop friendships and relationships. It can feel scary at first, but if you don’t try, you reduce your chances of making new friends.
- Tolerate Uncertainty
Most people like things to be clear-cut - to know where things stand. Unfortunately, life doesn't always cooperate, and this can lead to anxiety in social situations. A good way to learn to become more tolerant of uncertainty is to start acting “as if” you are tolerant of uncertainty. That is, try and change your behaviour around uncertainty, and this will eventually help you to change your thoughts and feelings around uncertainty. By becoming more tolerant of uncertainty, you get to let go of all of the problems associated with being intolerant, and you get to realize that you can deal with things, even when they don’t go perfectly.
- Improve Your Social Skills
Many people with social anxiety disorder believe that they lack social skills. In many cases, these people have the skills, but lack the confidence to use them. Social skills improve with use and practice. Spend as much time as you can practicing your social skills. This may be a scary prospect, but any type of social interaction can help you practice your skills. Start with interactions you feel comfortable with, such as getting together with a small group of friends or socializing with siblings. Try to add some new social interaction each week. Social skills are like any other skill. If you practice, you can get better.
Experiment to find out which techniques you prefer. Context is important, too. You may find that some strategies work in some circumstances but not in others. Experiment to observe what works best, and when. Don't be discouraged if you start using old behaviours. This can happen during stressful times or during transitions (for example, starting a new job or moving). This is normal. It just means that you need to keep practicing using the tools and techniques you’ve learned. Over time, you can make a difference in your ability to cope in social situations.