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Anxiety

How to Tackle Social Anxiety

If you feel unusually anxious in crowds or social situations, try these tips.

Key points

  • Social anxiety afflicts millions of people and creates an extreme, highly aversive sense of self-awareness.
  • Social anxiety is a component of a desire to take care of others in social situations.
  • Many of the beliefs a person holds about the consequences of social situations are likely to prove untrue.

If you feel anxious and uncomfortable in social situations — as if you’re under a microscope, with everyone else waiting for you to mess up and say something awkward — you are far from alone. According to fellow blogger Chloe Brotheridge, 15 million American adults experience similar feelings of social discomfort. It may be a challenge you’ve struggled with for quite some time, as well: Brotheridge suggested that the symptoms of Social Anxiety Disorder often first become noticeable in one’s early teenage years. Even so, take heart: if you want to make a change, it’s well within your reach to do so.

Grae Dickason / Pixabay / CC0
Source: Grae Dickason / Pixabay / CC0

For some people, what constitutes social anxiety can be hard to nail down. Psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, defined social anxiety in an interview with The Verge as “self-consciousness on steroids.” It’s the experience of having your attention drawn to your own perceived flaws; it’s a magnified perception of whatever you see as embarrassing or “not good enough” about yourself, your appearance, or your personality. Social anxiety makes you feel your worst tendencies are about to be discovered and judged by everyone around you, and it can make you want to escape or find a way to hide your shame.

But you might also want to know that social anxiety isn’t all bad. Hendriksen described it as a “package deal,” in that the powerful self-consciousness you feel when your social anxiety is triggered is also a useful part of you. It’s baked into your high standards and the care you feel for other people — that is, your desire to be empathetic and helpful. Hendriksen described people with social anxiety as excellent, sympathetic listeners who do their best to get along well with other people. Your anxiety is likely also a reflection of your desire to smooth out your social interactions as best you can.

Nonetheless, there are quite a few practical skills you can learn to manage your social anxiety. First of all, you may benefit from learning to identify your thoughts and expectations about the social interactions that trigger your fears and your shame. Exactly what do you think will happen that could leave you feeling so exposed and humiliated? What about a particular social grouping that could go wrong? This isn’t a rhetorical question; an anxious person’s most distressing notions about social interaction are likely to be based on unexplored ideas about the dangers of socializing.

If you think this might be you, it may help to do this exercise on paper. Write this down: what exact circumstances are you most afraid of in a social situation? Who, exactly, do you think will judge you? What are you afraid they will say?

Once you’ve identified your expectations, you may be able to challenge them. Perhaps you’re concerned that others will laugh at you. Ask yourself:

  • How often does this happen?
  • Has it happened before, in a way that felt as bad as you imagined?
  • When, and who was present?
  • Is the group you are currently socializing with very likely to stop what they’re doing to make fun of you?
  • Are they likely to call out the aspects of yourself that you feel most sensitive about?
  • Even if so, perhaps it is less likely to occur than you expect, and perhaps its results will be less hurtful.
  • And if it came right down to it and someone did laugh at you, would that be as much of a catastrophe as you believe? Or would it merely be uncomfortable? If so, would there be something you can do to mitigate the outcome?

You may be able to come up with a plan or a strategy to manage the experience as well as you can, like talking yourself through it in a compassionate but reasonable way. Thinking realistically can help you recontextualize potential social “disasters” as unpleasant but rare occurrences that would not deal you as much damage as you think.

You may be wondering what exactly you’re supposed to do while you’re struggling to identify and challenge your fears. Is it okay to go to a party but to hide out in a corner, avoid conversation, or to “help out” by washing dishes in the kitchen, so you don’t have to talk to anyone? Perhaps you tend to become deeply engaged in your phone rather than the people around you.

These strategies, as you may well know, constitute avoidance. You’ve likely adopted them as safety behaviors, and they serve to seal you off from other people — to armor yourself against anxiety, but also to insulate you against any possibility of challenging these fears and beliefs. If you do these things, you’re also working to prevent yourself from growing or changing. Plus, it’s counterproductive: Clinical research has shown that relaxing your social “safety behaviors” and being open about your flaws encourages other people to like you, not to laugh at you.

Before you put yourself in a situation that triggers your anxiety, remember that social interactions are not usually as challenging or dangerous as you’ve come to believe. If it helps, try to reassure yourself that life is not a “laser maze,” as Ellen Hendriksen said. Minor mistakes are not likely to prove critical, and you won’t catastrophically lose the social “game” if you make one.

Chloe Brotheridge agreed. She said to instead be kind to yourself and try not to hold yourself to a perfectionistic standard. Give yourself a break for making minor social faux-pas or having awkward interpersonal encounters. Do your best to relax, be present at the moment, and not get caught up in your beliefs or feelings. Try to be your natural self, and you’ll usually do just fine.

References

Brotheridge, C. (2020, July 17). 12 Powerful Ways to Help Overcome Social Anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/calmer-you/202007/12-powerful-w…

Chen, A. (2018, March 21). A psychologist explains how to beat social anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/21/17147750/social-anxiety-psychology-h…

Plasencia, M. L., Taylor, C. T., & Alden, L. E. Unmasking One’s True Self Facilitates Positive Relational Outcomes: Authenticity Promotes Social Approach Processes in Social Anxiety Disorder. Clinical Psychological Science, 4(6), pp. 1002-1014.

Raypole, C. (2021, May 25). Ready to overcome social anxiety? These 9 tips can help. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/how-to-get-over-social-anxiety

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