If you suffer from social anxiety, you aren’t alone. Many people with this disorder are often called “shy” or “introverted,” but being reserved around strangers or liking alone time isn’t the same as a social anxiety disorder.
Social anxiety disorder is also called social phobia, and it’s not just about feeling nervous around people. People with social anxiety have an overwhelming fear of being judged, mocked or rejected in social situations. This anxiety can range from big meets to small, everyday interactions like ordering a meal at a restaurant.
People with social anxiety are so worried about looking stupid or being perceived as boring and undesirable by others that they’ll avoid performance-based situations at all costs. This coping mechanism is what leaves many outsiders to assume that people with social phobia are just introverts or recluses.
In reality, people with social anxiety deeply long for meaningful friendships and relationships. As much as they want to be able to talk with others and have fun without feeling out-of-place, they struggle to overcome the incessant and often overwhelming fear that they won’t be liked.
Understanding Social Anxiety Disorder – Do You Have It?
While no one but a psychologist or counselor can make a definitive diagnosis, there are some online screening tests for social anxiety disorder that can help you determine whether or not you might have the condition.
Some of the most common signs and symptoms of social anxiety are:
- A strong and continued fear of any social situation where people might judge you
- Fear that you will embarrass yourself by doing or saying something stupid
- Fear that others will notice how anxious you are
- Knowing your fear is unreasonable but not being able to stop it
- Feelings of anxiety including racing heart, sweaty palms, “shakiness’ and difficulty breathing
12 Ways to Manage Social Anxiety
Therapy is always the best way to overcome an anxiety disorder, but it isn’t an option or everyone. You may not be able to afford to counsel, or the thought of actually going to a therapists’ office may give you social anxiety. That’s okay. What matters is that you are taking the steps now to help yourself.
These 12 steps will help you understand your anxiety more and manage your symptoms so you can begin to tackle your social fears one conversation at a time.
12. Learn All You Can About the Disorder
As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” The more you understand your condition, the less intimidating it feels. Rather than your anxiety being in control, you can learn to view it as a medical problem. You’ll also realize that you aren’t alone, and millions of other people understand and empathize with your feelings.
The National Social Anxiety Center is a fantastic place to start. On the website, you can learn about the symptoms of social anxiety disorder, take a screening test, read personal stories, find a local clinic and learn about possible therapy treatments you can even try on your own.
11. Find an Online Support Group
Sites like The Mighty offer social anxiety support communities that help people get in touch with others going through the same thing. You can read dozens of accounts of people who struggle with the same problem. Reading their stories and connecting online, you can finally feel understood, no matter how much your own disorder has left you isolated in the real world.
10. Learn to Talk About Your Disorder
You don’t have to be ashamed of your condition. As scary as it may be, telling someone, “I have anxiety,” can be extremely liberating. Because you fear judgment, make sure the first people you talk to are ones you can trust. Perhaps you’ve tried to tell others about your symptoms in the past and they just told you it was all in your head, that it’s stupid and you should “just get over it.”
These reactions are not personal. Many people simply don’t understand anxiety disorders and lack the education required to respond better. Some may even think they’re being helpful by telling you there’s nothing to worry about and to “just not think about it.”
You are allowed to have an anxiety disorder. Social anxiety does not make you a freak, unloveable or boring.
To start opening up more to people you care about, write down your thoughts and feelings beforehand so you feel more in control during the conversation. Focus on using “I” statements. Many people with social anxiety often feel that their thoughts and feelings don’t matter or that they’re dumb and will be mocked.
Your feelings and opinions are just as valid as anyone else’s. Using “I” statements, like “I feel hurt when you tell me to get over my anxiety,” will give you ownership of your feels and allow you to assert yourself in conversation.
9. Practice Deep Breathing
Breathing exercises for anxiety help calm your body and reduce physical symptoms. During an anxiety attack, the body’s peripheral nervous system kicks into overdrive. The fight-or-flight response that’s meant to keep us safe in dangerous situations winds up making even simple exchanges feel like a threat.
To practice deep breathing, you should focus on using your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that rests beneath your lungs. Rather than shallow breaths that rise and fall in your chest, diaphragmatic breathing allows you to draw deep breaths that expand your stomach.
8. Start Tackling Negative Thoughts
Grab a notebook, pen or pencil and a nice cup of tea or coffee before you sit down to address your negative thoughts. While it may make you feel anxious to even think about how you feel around others, it’s important to address your anxiety and learn to diffuse it rather than struggle against it.
When you’re comfortable, write down some of the thoughts that go through your mind before and during a social situation. Some examples might be, “Everyone is going to think I’m stupid and laugh at me behind my back,” or “People will only talk to me because they feel like they have to.”
Leave a few lines between each thought. Once you’ve compiled a list, use that extra space between your thoughts to counter the negativity. If you wrote, “People will hear me stutter and think I’m dumb,” you could write something like, “Everyone slips up sometimes, they probably won’t even notice. They’re more interested in what I have to say than how I say it, anyway.”
Preparing for social situations can make you feel more confident when you’re in them. Rehearsals will make it easier for you to know what to say and not feel like you’re frozen on the spot. Consider a phone call. Write down a script of phrases and questions you can use to speak before you dial the number.
When it comes to presentations at work or school, stand in front of the mirror and deliver your points to yourself several times until you can clearly touch upon each major point without long pauses or lots of “ums” and “uhs.”
6. Accept Your Anxiety
One of the biggest mistakes people with anxiety disorders make is viewing their condition as something bad. Your condition might be undesirable to have, but it doesn’t make you an undesirable person. The more fear, hatred and disgust you have about your anxiety, the more you’re likely to avoid dealing with it.
Accept that anxiety disorders happen, and they’re nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s estimated that 12.1-percent of adults in the U.S. will have a social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. That number might seem small, but consider the fact the U.S. population is over 328 million people. Now, 12-percent doesn’t seem so insignificant.
5. Explore Cognitive Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular treatment methods for social anxiety disorder. This therapy teaches people to identify and change negative thinking patterns and beliefs called “cognitive distortions.”
CBT is skill-based therapy, which means it can be learned and practiced throughout your life. CBT for social anxiety rewires the brain’s neural pathways and teaches you how to react calmly to situations that normally trigger anxiety.
4. Confront Your Insecurities
Many people with a social anxiety disorder also suffer from low self-esteem. As they avoid situations or experience awkward interactions, they only become more insecure and believe that they’re boring and only make a fool of themselves when they talk to others.
A therapist can help you get to the bottom of your anxiety and insecurity. You can also work on this yourself by considering your past and acknowledging events in your past that may have led you to think little of yourself. Perhaps you had bad friendships, romantic relationships or grew up in a dysfunctional family.
Once you begin to understand why you feel this way, it becomes easier to explain them and heal.
3. Ask Friends for Help
Opening up about your social anxiety to your friends can make it a lot easier to manage. If you’re an introvert, your more sociable friends can help you identify where you can improve your communication and how to connect better with others.
Being an introvert isn’t a bad thing. Accepting yourself as you are, social anxiety or not, is a major milestone in personal growth and makes it much easier to confront any problems you might have.
2. Start Small
You don’t need to throw yourself into uncomfortable situations if you want to get over your social anxiety. While total immersion and confrontation is used as a form of exposure therapy, doing it by yourself can often be traumatizing. Don’t feel like you have to eliminate your anxiety overnight. Chances are, you’ve struggled with these feelings for months or even years, so it will take some time to change them.
Begin treating your social anxiety by committing to at least one social interaction that scares you every day. If you usually have your friend or family member order for you at the coffee shop, do it yourself. Ask a sales associate where an item is in a store. Raise your hand in class and ask a question, or, if you’re working, greet a colleague and try to have a small conversation.Integrating yourself into familiar situations will make it easier to begin working through your anxiety. Repeat these encounters over and over again, day by day, so that they build confidence and help you overcome your fear. It might be horrible the first time, but keep track of your symptoms and their intensity.
It may help to use a rating scale of zero to 10; Zero can mean absolutely no anxiety and extremely relaxed, while 10 would be the worst possible symptoms. Over time, you will find that symptoms may not entirely vanish, but they are significantly less severe. An experience that might have once caused you to feel like a nine will only feel like a two or three.
1. Get Help When You Need It
Support from family and friends is wonderful, but some people will need the benefit of psychotherapy to overcome their social anxiety disorder for good. A big part of the fear associated with counseling comes from the same anxiety that keeps people from socializing. The fear of being judged or considered damaged may make you hesitant to see a therapist, but this is not the case.
A counselor or psychologist doesn’t judge someone’s entire worth based on their mental health. In fact, mental health professionals value people so much that they want to help them see value in themselves, too, so they can overcome their struggles and realize their true potential.
Psychotherapy for social anxiety is mostly “talk therapy.” During sessions, you will speak with your counselor about your feelings, get in touch with your thoughts and learn new coping strategies that help you conquer your anxiety at your own pace.