A Guide for Individuals Struggling With Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder that causes intense and unreasonable anxiety, fear, and worry in social situations. It can cause you to worry in advance, be fearful during an event, and to overanalyze after socializing. Ultimately, this condition can cause you to become isolated and lonely. Therapy is the best way to start learning how to cope with social anxiety. Once in mental health care you can practice what you learn and face your fears with new coping mechanisms and strategies.
Social anxiety can be debilitating. It can deprive you of friendships, a social circle, and healthy relationships. It can leave you isolated, lonely, and struggling to cope. Mental health care can help, yet the vast majority of people with social anxiety disorder don’t get adequate help.
One of the most important things you can do to overcome social anxiety is to reach out. Talk to someone you trust, even if that is just one person in your life. Seek help from a mental health professional. And follow this guide to learn how to cope with crippling social anxiety.
What Is Social Anxiety?
It’s perfectly normal to feel a little nervous when going into a new social situation. For example, an invitation to a party with a lot of people you don’t know or a networking event for work might cause you to feel a little apprehensive about what might happen.
For someone with social anxiety disorder, these worries and fears are intense and out of proportion given the situation. Anxiety disorders are diagnosable mental health conditions that cause excessive worry and fear. One of these is social anxiety disorder. It’s characterized by:
- Fear of being judged badly by others
- Intense worry about embarrassing yourself
- Fear of talking to new people and strangers
- Fear that others will notice your anxiety and fear, including physical symptoms like sweating or blushing
- Major anxiety before an event or social engagement and expecting the worst to happen
- Avoiding situations where you might be judged or be the center of attention
- Going over social events to analyze your behaviors and any perceived mistakes you made
You may also have physical symptoms in certain situations, including blushing, trembling, a racing heartbeat, indigestion, sweating, muscle tension, and dizziness.
The Consequences of Social Anxiety Are Serious
Social anxiety may not sound like a dire mental condition, but it can be severe with serious consequences and complications:
- Difficulty going to and performing in school or at work
- Few or no friends
- Social isolation and loneliness
- Low self-esteem
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
- Other mental health conditions, like depression and other types of anxiety
How to Cope With Social Anxiety Disorder
If you can learn to overcome or at least manage and minimize some of your social fears, you should have a much better quality of life. You’ll find it easier to function at work and in ordinary social situations. Your relationships will improve, and you can give up any negative coping mechanisms that became bad habits, like drinking to soothe your fears. Here are some important ways to manage social anxiety.
1. Get Professional Mental Health Care.
This is the best thing you can do to start improving your social anxiety. Anxiety disorder is a treatable, manageable condition, and too few people actually get effective care. An experienced therapist or team of professionals can help you in several ways.
One of the most effective recovery plans for social anxiety disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. An expert in CBT will teach you how to recognize and change your negative thoughts, build self-esteem, and develop social skills.
This may include exposure therapy, which helps you work up to social situations in a safe space, such as a support group. You could also benefit from medications, like antidepressants, used to manage anxiety disorders. Remember that mental health care takes time. Do the work and be patient and you will see results.
2. Practice Socializing.
While in care, do your own homework. Socializing is a skill that takes practice. Start small and work your way up to situations you find more and more challenging and scary. For instance, you can start with a family member. Practice going out to dinner or a coffee shop.
When out in public, practice making eye contact when making purchases. Ask a retail associate for help with something. Spend time in public places where you will have to interact, even in small ways, with other people. Practice makes perfect, but it does take time. Be patient and be kind to yourself if you have setbacks.
3. Prepare for Situations That Make You Feel Anxious.
When you have an anxiety-inducing event or situation coming up preparation can help. You have a fear of the unknown, so the more you can do to manage the situation, the more confident you’ll feel going into it.
Find out details about the event, like where to park and where to go next. Arrive early if possible. Talk to someone familiar with the event to find out what to expect. Imagine what the event will be like if everything goes well. Picture yourself being confident and talking to people without feeling embarrassed.
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4. Challenge Negative Thoughts.
If you have social anxiety, you probably spend a lot of time thinking about how you messed up, what could go wrong, and what you wish you did differently. The truth is that most of your negative thoughts are flawed or completely wrong. You thought you embarrassed yourself at a party, but it’s likely no one noticed or cared.
As these thoughts arise in your head, stop and think about them. Change them to be more realistic. For instance, if you find yourself thinking, “I’m definitely going to say something stupid at this party,” instead say, “I’m not perfect, but neither is anyone else and no one will laugh at me.”
Everyone suffers from the so-called spotlight effect to some degree. We think that other people notice our mistakes more than they do in reality. With social anxiety, your spotlight effect is enhanced. Change your negative thoughts and remind yourself that other people are more focused on themselves than on you.
5. Focus on Others in Social Situations.
You fear the spotlight being on you, so position it on others to remove some of that pressure. Ask people questions and get them talking. Listen to what they say to you instead of focusing on any negative thoughts running through your mind. Listening and asking questions are important social skills that people will notice and like about you.
6. Use Relaxation Strategies.
If you’re in a social situation, and your preparation and ability to challenge negative thoughts begin to fail, panic tends to rise. Reverse the tendency to let your anxiety escalate by trying a quick relaxation strategy.
A breathing exercise is a quick and easy way to distract and calm your mind. Inhale slowly and deeply, counting to five. Hold it for a couple seconds and exhale, again counting slowly to five. Repeat this until you feel calmer. Retreat to a bathroom or other quiet space, if necessary, although you can also do it in a group without anyone noticing.
7. Face Your Fears.
Finally, it’s essential that you put yourself out there and face your fears. Social anxiety will not improve if you remain isolated. Going out for mental health care is an important step. Opening up to a therapist is a great beginning.
From there, take small steps to be more social. Try to do one new thing every day, like saying hi to a coworker in the cafeteria or asking someone for help with a math problem in class. Work up to going to events and engaging people in longer conversations.
Social anxiety can be crippling. It’s easy to let fears and worries overwhelm you, but the consequences include a life spent mostly alone and isolated. Move forward with professional care, the support of those you trust, and by changing your thoughts and facing and conquering your fears.