Do you get jittery when you are tasked to give a speech?
Do you get sweaty and uncomfortable during interviews?
Many people get nervous or self-conscious on occasion, but that is not what social anxiety is about. It is more than just shyness or occasional nerves.
If you have a social anxiety disorder, the stress of these situations is too much to handle. In fact, it becomes too intense that you may go to great lengths to avoid situations that can trigger it.
According to this article, social anxiety disorder affects up to 13% of the population. The sad news is that people who have social anxiety are suffering.
They have trouble making friends and maintaining friendships, finding the right life partners, finding work and building a good career, and even getting through simple socialization.
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
Social anxiety is the fear of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people. If you are socially anxious, you have an overwhelming fear of:
- Being judged by others in social situations
- Being embarrassed or humiliated
- Accidentally offending someone
- Being the center of attention
- An intense worry for days, weeks, or even months before an upcoming social situation
- Fear that others will notice that you’re nervous
For example, you may avoid all social contact because even a small talk and eye contact make you so uncomfortable. You will feel the following physical symptoms when out in a social gathering:
- Rapid heartbeat
- Muscle tension
- Dizziness and lightheadedness
- Stomach trouble and diarrhea
- Inability to catch a breath
- “Out-of-body” sensation
- Red face, or blushing
- Shortness of breath
- Trembling or shaking (including shaky voice
- Sweating or hot flashes
Social anxiety disorder is seriously debilitating. But it can be treated. The best treatment approach involves combining cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and/or medication (such as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.
However, there are also self-help strategies to overcome social anxiety and they are as follows:
1. Challenge your negative thoughts
Social anxiety develops negative thoughts. The first step to help yourself is to challenge your mentality. These negative thoughts contribute to their fears and anxiety and some of them are:
- “I know I’ll end up looking like a fool.”
- “My voice will start shaking and I’ll humiliate myself.”
- “People will think I’m stupid”
- “I won’t have anything to say. I’ll seem boring.”
For example, when you are worried about an upcoming social gathering, identify the underlying negative thought. It could be “I won’t have anything to say. I’ll seem boring.”
Next, analyze and challenge this negative thought. Be objective enough and ask questions like “Do I know for sure that they will get bored with me?”
Through this logical evaluation of your negative thought, replace them with encouraging and positive ways of looking at social situations that trigger your anxiety. When you understand the reasons for your anxieties, it will help lessen their negative impact on your life.
2. Stop unhelpful thinking
Unhelpful thoughts are those that bring you down and fuel your anxiety. To help your anxiety level go down, stop the following unhelpful thinking:
- Mind reading – This is when you find yourself assuming that you know what other people are thinking. Stop thinking that people see you in the same negative way that you see yourself.
- Fortune telling – This refers to the times when you are predicting the future and assuming the worst will happen. How do you know that things will really go horribly? When you are fortune telling, you make yourself more anxious before you’re even in the situation.
- Catastrophizing – This is when you blow things out of proportion. For example, if people notice that you’re nervous, you immediately conclude that they think it will be “awful”, “terrible”, or “disastrous.”
- Personalizing – This is when you assume that people are focusing on you in a negative way or that what’s going on with other people has to do with you.
3. Focus on other things but yourself
When we are in a social situation that makes you anxious, we tend to get caught up in our anxious thoughts and feelings. You are convincing yourself that all the people are looking at you and judging you.
Normally, our focus is on our bodily sensations, hoping that by paying extra close attention to them, we are controlling them. But nothing can be farther from the truth.
This excessive self-focus only makes us more aware of how nervous we’re feeling, thus triggering even more anxiety! And when we focus on our racing heartbeat and cold hands, we are preventing ourselves from fully concentrating on the conversations around us.
Here are some things you can do instead:
- Focus your attention on other people – Take time to appreciate what other people are wearing or how the ambiance feels like. Avoid thinking about what other people are thinking of you! Instead, do your best to engage them and make a genuine connection.
- Remember that anxiety isn’t as visible as you think. – Most of the time, people don’t notice that you are anxious. They won’t know how your heartbeat is racing unless you tell them. And even if they know that you’re nervous, that doesn’t mean they’ll think badly of you. It is more likely that they are also nervous just like you.
- Really listen to what is being said – Avoid listening to your own negative thoughts. Listen to what other people are talking about.
- Focus on the present moment – Rather than worrying about what you’re going to say, focus on the present moment. Tell yourself everything will be okay.
- Release the pressure to be perfect. – No one is perfect, and that includes you. Instead of putting pressure on yourself to be perfect, focus on being genuine and attentive because these are qualities that other people will appreciate.
- Breathe and let go – Take a deep breath and let go. Enjoy the moment and avoid beating yourself up if things don’t go as planned.
4. Learn to control your breathing
When you become anxious, you begin to breathe quickly. In turn, it throws off the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body.
Hyperventilation leads to more physical symptoms of anxiety, such as dizziness, a feeling of suffocation, increased heart rate, and muscle tension. But if you learn how to control your breathing, it can help bring your physical symptoms of anxiety back under control.
Practice the following breathing exercise to stay calm:
- Sit comfortably – Relax and with your back straight and your shoulders relaxed, put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Inhale slowly – Inhale deeply and slowly through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 2 seconds.
- Exhale slowly – Exhale slowly through your mouth for 6 seconds, pushing out as much air as you can.
- Continue to breathe – Repeat the inhale and exhale exercise. Focus on keeping a slow and steady breathing pattern of 4-in, 2-hold, and 6-out.
5. Face your fears
Avoidance will only keep your social anxiety disorder going.
When you avoid what you fear, it will help you feel better in the short term. But, it prevents you from becoming more comfortable in social situations and learning how to cope in the long term.
Not only that, the longer you avoid a feared social situation, the more frightening it becomes. Also, avoidance prevents you from doing things you’d like to do – it is restricting you.
Face your fears gradually – take one small step at a time to avoid being overwhelmed. Start with a situation that you can handle like talking to one office mate. When you have successfully done it, your confidence will be boosted. Then, gradually work your way up to more challenging situations.
Here are steps that can help you work your way up the “anxiety ladder”:
- Don’t try to face your biggest fear right away. – One small step will do. In fact, it’s never a good idea to move too fast, take on too much, or force things. This may result in more anxiety for you.
- Be patient. – Success is not achieved in a day and so is overcoming social anxiety. It takes time and practice. Be patient with yourself and give yourself some credit.
- Be calm. – Use skills to remain calm like focusing on your breathing and challenging your negative thoughts. When you master them, you will find it easier to overcome your anxiety.
Overcoming social anxiety is a long journey to take. But every journey will be successful if we constantly take one small step at a time. And although it seems like an impossible obstacle, it’s so worth it.
Living a life free from social anxiety is possible and it starts with your decision to help yourself.