Everyone, even the most confident person you know, is nervous or anxious in new social situations. After all, humans are social creatures designed to rely on the acceptance of each other.
We all want to fit in; we all want to be well-liked. When we feel that acceptance is threatened, we get nervous and worried. This is a human reaction. It’s completely normal to fear rejection or making a fool of yourself.
However, in recent years, we’ve been hearing more and more about social anxiety, which reaches beyond these normal levels of social nervousness. In other words, it’s more than a fear of public speaking or constantly worrying about saying the wrong thing at a party.
How to Start Overcoming Social Anxiety
These are common experiences, and while you may feel more anxious about these events than others do, it doesn’t stop you from giving the presentation or attending the party. True social anxiety interferes with your life in significant ways, derailing your ability to interact and pushing you into deep isolation. If you suspect that you’re dealing with social anxiety, there are tools at your disposal, but you may also want the support of a professional who can help you design an effective and personalized plan to deal with your anxiety. But whether your anxiety is severe or mild, there are many tactics you can adopt to help with overcoming social anxiety and be as social as you desire.
1. Remember that Anxiety Isn’t Reality
Your worries are just that, worries. The situations you’re imagining haven’t actually come true; they exist only in your mind. When you start to panic, remind yourself of this and take a few deep breaths. Just because it could happen doesn’t mean that it will happen. Embracing reality is always a good antidote to catastrophizing.
2. Play the “What If?” Game
Since you’re already imagining the worst-case scenario, go with it. What if the worst actually happens and you embarrass yourself and your entire family and, for that matter, everyone you’ve ever met?
- Well, you’ll be embarrassed, right? Then what?
- You’ll probably want to go home and never show your face again. Then what?
- You’ll cry yourself to sleep. Then what?
- You’ll wake up the next morning and feel embarrassed all over again. Then what?
- You’ll go to work or school because you have to. Then what?
The point is, by walking yourself through the entire series of worst scenario events, you can provide yourself with evidence that life will go on, that social embarrassment can’t actually kill you. It will be unpleasant, but the earth will continue to spin. Facing your fears and their potential consequences is a good way to thwart the threat of the unknown, stealing its power to ruin a potentially great day.
3. Face Your Fears
While these are good steps to take ahead of time, in the end, if you want to take control of your anxiety, you have to actually enter the situation you’re dreading. Though you’re certain it won’t go well, do it anyway. Sometimes, we just have to do the thing, we’re afraid of to prove to ourselves that we can. While you may not magically turn into a social butterfly, even standing awkwardly in a corner with a smile on your face and a few well-timed, “mm-hmms” is a win.
Survive and you can walk out of there at the end of the night with the knowledge that you bravely did something difficult. That’s always a good feeling. In the face of anxiety, survival is worth soaking in and acknowledging. Allow it to sink in and build your confidence.
4. Rely on Your “Wingman”
Though it may be difficult to believe, some people are good at small talk. On occasion, it’s perfectly okay for you to attach yourself to a friend who has such a talent. Not only will this friend act as a buffer for you, but you will also have the happy accident of watching them in action.
Take advantage of this.
While you stand casually at his or her side, take mental notes on the topics of conversation, the innocuous questions, the relaxed posture. These things may come naturally for your friend, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t study, learn, and incorporate them.
5. Change Your Focus
Let’s say you find yourself at a party and you feel the panic starting to overwhelm you. Maybe your hands are shaking or your mind is whirring a mile a minute, but you still can’t think of a thing to say. If this happens, position yourself as a listener and find something in the room that you can focus on. Perhaps it’s a painting on the wall. Focus on the colors or the scenery.
Consider who the artist might be or why they painted this particular scene. Or maybe you can spend five or ten minutes wondering if the blonde across the way is a natural blonde, or just a really good dye job. Whatever it is, taking your mind off yourself is an effective way to distract yourself from your overwhelming anxiety and panic. Once you feel more steady, you’ll be ready to reenter the conversation or situation.
6. Remember that You Win Some…and You Lose Some
There will be times when it all goes much better than you expected. There will also be times when you stumble through a slightly embarrassing evening. You’re not alone. Everyone, even the people you’d never suspect, have experienced the same up and down rhythm of social success. In all likelihood, however, it won’t ever be as bad as you expect. The good news is that true social anxiety is pretty rare. If you’re an introvert who doesn’t like crowds, or if you struggle with generalized anxiety, you can still find your way in challenging social situations.
Even if you do suffer from severe social anxiety, there is hope. With some effort on your part and the right support, social anxiety can be overcome. The important thing to remember is that even if anxiety is a common occurrence in your life, you can still be a good friend. You can show up and you can even enjoy yourself. Make a plan, do the work and get out there!
By: Dr. Matt Lindsay