If you suffer from social anxiety, you know how debilitating it can be. People who suffer from anxiety disorders of any type (generalized anxiety disorder and many others) often have trouble dealing with situations that other people might find neutral or even enjoyable. Socially anxious people do not just shy away from social situations because they find them exhausting, as many introverts do; they may find social situations so terrifying that they suffer crippling anxiety symptoms, such as panic attacks, which can take a severe toll on their mental health, professional life, and personal life. Attending an event, going to a party, sitting in on or participating in a meeting, or even meeting a friend for dinner can lead them down a fear spiral and provoke anxious thoughts.
According to the Social Anxiety Institute, social anxiety is defined as the "fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, self-consciousness, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression."
The Institute also identifies social anxiety disorder as the third largest psychological disorder in the United States. So if you have social anxiety disorder, you are not alone; many other Americans and people around the world experience the same struggle with everyday interactions and situations.
People who suffer from social anxiety disorders often experience a feeling of great distress when faced with a range of situations such as:
• Meeting or being introduced to other people, particularly "important" or influential people
• Facing criticism or ridicule
• Being the center of attention
• Public speaking or performances—or being observed or watched in any way
• Social encounters of any kind, particularly involving strangers
• Relationships with others, both friendships and romantic relationships
They may find other situations challenging as well.
While most people who suffer from a social anxiety disorder understand that their fear is largely irrational, they can't help feeling how they feel and having the irrational thoughts and physical symptoms—such as racing heart, fight-or-flight response, sweating, or other physical symptoms—that often accompany their disorder.
In professional situations, having a social anxiety disorder can feel especially debilitating. How do you overcome your extreme shyness to showcase your strengths in an interview, for instance, if you are always afraid of what the hiring manager is going to think about you or that you'll make a faux pas? What are you supposed to do at networking events, where you're faced with having to intereact with strangers for hours on end? Will your phobia prevent you from making a good impression?
Throughout your professional life, you are going to have numerous encounters with colleagues and strangers alike. Advancing in your career will require you to tackle your problem head on, because daily panic attacks that result from your fear of meeting and interacting with new people will almost certainly get in the way of your work and ability to thrive in your role.
So how do you develop coping techniques for dealing with your social anxiety and getting past your shyness and phobia of interacting with other people?
While social anxiety disorder can be difficult to overcome, the good news is that many treatments have proven very effective in helping people who suffer from a social anxiety disorder. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that these changes having lasting or permanent effects on people's lives.
Read on for five strategies that can help you overcome your disorder once and for all.
1. See a cognitive behavioral therapist.
Most of the treatments we'll discuss further are practices of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves using evidence-based practices to improve mental health and help individuals develop coping skills and strategies. Therapists who practice CBT use different strategies to help individuals who suffer from anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),substance abuse, eating disorders, and, sometimes, borderline personality disorder. It may be used in conjunction with psychotropic medications for these disorders and others, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), major depressive disorder, opioid addiction, bipolar, and many other mental health problems.
If you're socially anxious to the point at which you find your anxiety symptoms debilitating (in other words they are negatively impacting your life), your first step is to seek the help of a mental health professional.
She will likely recommend a series of techniques, which we'll describe in greater detail below, for overcoming your negative thoughts and reactions when you are faced with a social interaction. She will also work with you to develop social skills to help you handle the situations that make you feel anxious or afraid.
2. Focus your attention "outward."
People who fear social interaction and panic at the idea of having to engage with other people or in group settings spend the majority of their thoughts and attention focused inward on their own behavior and how others are perceiving them. This leaves them feeling exhausted and unable to exhibit their own social skills, because they are so worried about what could go wrong. This is a vicious cycle, because worrying too much about everything that could go wrong can lead to things actually going wrong; your lack of self-confidence makes it impossible to think about anything else and engage in a social scenario.
So how do you fight your response? By actually overcoming your negative thoughts. Turn your attention outward; think about what is ging on around you, rather than what is going on in your own head. Rather than examining yourself, focus your attention on the other person. Nobody is asking you to get on the stage for a public speaking event; just try to have an engaging, friendly conversation with another person.
It is also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the cognitive distortions that you may be experiencing. Some common cognitive distortions—patterns of distorted thinking—include:
• Filtering: magnifying the negative aspects of a situation while ignoring the positive aspects
• Polarized thinking: Ignoring shades of gray; thinking situations are black and white or all or nothing
• Overgeneralization: jumping to conclusions based on a single incident
• Catastrophizing: inflating the importance of insignificant events or circumstances
• Personalization: assuming that everything other people do is an attack on you or taking responsibility for something that is not your fault
• Emotional reasoning: feeling like your emotions represent the truth of the situation; if you feel it, it must be true
When you learn to recognize these and other emotional distortions, you can begin to challenge them. Start paying attention to and labeling your thoughts, so you become aware of the types of cognitive distortions you perform. For instance, if you are at a party and spill your drink, you might immediately think, "I've ruined everything. Now everyone hates me, and they'll never want to have me over again." A quick scan of your list of cognitive distortions would lead you to realize that you're catastrophizing: inflating the important of a minor event—spilling your drink—which is really just a minor inconvience that other people will forget quickly.
Once you know how to label these events, you may soon realize that the patterns of thinking going on in your head are really just that—patterns of thinking—rather than actuality or reality. This can be a useful way of overcoming your fear of interacting with others and engaging in group events or situations, since you know that your thoughts are not equivalent with facts and reality; they are just negative thoughts and expectations.
3. Identify the situations that provoke the most fear—and do the things that make you anxious.
If you experience social anxiety, you may have developed avoidance behaviors—avoiding, for instance, going to party or group setting because you imagine the worst-case scenario will play out. In not attending these events, you are actually rewarding yourself for avoiding the situation and reinforcing your own behavior.
Make a list of your triggering experiences, and rate the level of anxiety each event provokes. For instance, going to a party might provoke a lot of anxiety and fear in you, so you might rate that a nine. Meanwhile, going to a family dinner may cause you a little apprehension, but not as much as an event in which you are likely to encounter strangers, so you would rate that a three.
Then, test out your ratings. Force yourself to be in the situations you most fear, but think about your level of anxiety while your in them. Be very specific when predicting your how much anxiety a particular event will provoke; you may find that they do not give you nearly as much anxiety as you suspected.
Next, you need to elimnate your "safety behaviors," the behaviors you cling to to cope with your own anxiety. For instance, you might avoid eye contact, drink to much, or keep your arms crossed. Pay attention to what you're doing to cope with your behavior, and then challenge yourself to eliminate them altogether.
Finally, face your fears. Do the things that provoke your anxiety. Force yourself to engage in situations that make you uncomfortable. Every time you do it—even if it doesn't go well, or you don't like doing it—reward yourself. You have faced your fear head on; you deserve a reward.
4. Practice mindfulness.
Though not specifically a practice of cognitive-behavioral therapy—although many CBT practitioners have begun dabbling with meditiation and mindfulness practices—mindfulness can be an effective coping mechanism for managing a range of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, as well as social anxiety.
Mindfulness involves using and paying attention to all of your senses. Rather than thinking about how particular experiences and thoughts relate to or impact you, let them come and go. Deep breathing, and paying attention to your breathing, are other aspects of mindfulness. The idea is to take your mind off of negative thoughts and anxiety-provoking experiences, and instead take your thoughts as they come and go.
Practicing mindfulness can also help you pay more attention to your surroundings, rather than your personal situation and self. You might notice sights, sounds, and smells, rather than your anxious thoughts.
Mindfulness requires a great deal of practice and patience, so don't be discouraged if your social anxiety doesn't immediately dissipate after one session of relaxation and deep breathing. Keep going and doing it every day.
If you are having trouble getting started with mindfulness techniques on your own, try using a guided mediation, attending a class, practicing with a friend, or asking your therapist to work with you on mindfulness practices.
5. Practice self-soothing and self-compassion.
Be nice to yourself. Your social anxiety is not your fault, and you should berate or be mean to yourself if you are unable to conquer or defeat it at first.
If you have a difficult experience, practice self-soothing techniques. People find comfort from different people, experiences, places, or things. Identify what brings you joy and makes you feel calm. For example, you might gain clarity and feel better after a long walk. Perhaps playing with your dog helps you feel more at peace. Maybe eating a bowl of your favorite flavor of ice cream brings you satisfacion. Or perhaps you can always lose yourself in a good book.
When you find yourself in an upsetting situation, give yourself a break. Do something that will help you relax and find peace, even if it is just momentary relief. These small moments of relaxation can give you energy and support through difficult situations and experiences.
It is also important to be kind to yourself during setbacks. If you full intended to go to a party but, plagued by the what-ifs, just could not will yourself to go at the last minute and sat on the couch watching TV instead, don't be too hard on yourself. You will have other chances to face your fears. It's okay to make mistakes sometimes, and it's okay to have setbacks.