How To Live With Social Anxiety: Strategies That Make Socializing More Enjoyable
You ever wondered if anyone else in the room is as anxious and wrapped up in their own mind as you are in social settings? You find yourself completely drained of energy after what’s supposed to be a fun get-together because the entire time you’re just trying to survive it without fleeing the scene or letting on that you’re struggling in any way. The anxiousness doesn’t just set in when you’re around people, but you go through a whirlwind of emotions leading up to it. And that’s only when you can muster up the strength to put yourself in a social situation; a lot of times you avoid them altogether.
The truth is that social anxiety is very common! It presents itself in varying degrees, but it is something that many people are dealing with. That may be comforting to know but surely you’re more interested in learning how to manage it better.
What is Social Anxiety?
It seems pretty self-explanatory that social anxiety is anxiety related to social situations, however, it’s a little deeper than that. We all get anxious at times; anxiety is a normal human emotion. But those with social anxiety are overflowing with fear that is disproportionate to the actual situation. Fear of what you might ask… Fear of scrutiny and judgment by others. Fear of being seen in a negative light. Fear of embarrassment and humiliation. Fear of being rejected by others. Fear of offending others. The list goes on.
You can imagine how debilitating this must make a life for those with social anxiety. We are a social species. So much of our lives are in the view of and around other people. It’s nearly impossible to avoid contact with another human being, although those of you with social anxiety have probably become experts in avoidance.
The Internet Age has given us the ability to do so much from the safety and security of our homes. You don’t have to go out into the world to survive anymore. You can order just about anything you need online. You can work online. You can stay up to date with the lives of family and friends online without having to talk to anyone.
If you do choose to talk to someone, you can do it through text and email, using primarily emojis to convey expression. Although that still may be anxiety-provoking for some of the more serious cases of socially anxious people, it’s still less intense in comparison to in-person interaction. You can even get therapy online nowadays, and if it’s too overwhelming to show your face you can shut off your camera.
So if we now have the technology set up that allows us to reduce human contact, then why do so many people seek help for social anxiety? Well, one simple reason is it’s really lonely! Imagine wanting to be around people but not feeling like you can do it without stress and anxiety. Imagine a desire to be an active participant in life outside your home but being trapped in an anxious web within you that constricts tighter and tighter the more you get outside your comfort zone. HOW AWFUL!
It’s not an easy thing to overcome, but it is possible to manage it differently. Here are some strategies you can use to get started…
Develop and Practice Grounding Techniques and Coping Strategies to Reduce the Symptoms of Anxiety
As mentioned before, a lot of the struggle with social anxiety is the physiological symptoms that are triggered and the fear that others will notice. Learning ways to regulate your body when you get anxious can be a huge help. Two of the most common symptoms of anxiety are racing heart rate and shortened breaths. To address them both, you want to work on controlling your breathing.
Oxygen or lack thereof is a major contributor to the onset of other symptoms in your body. If you practice breathing techniques to ensure a good flow of oxygen is coming in, you’ll notice a decrease in other symptoms.
Try this breathing technique:
Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. Breathe in through your nose, expanding your belly out and allowing the breath to fill up your abdomen. Try to breathe in for a count of 4. Now exhale through your mouth and let your body deflate. Try to extend your exhale to a count of 6 or 8; this will help your heart rate to slow down. Repeat this process until you feel relaxed and can get back into a normal breathing rhythm.
Another important skill to develop is the ability to ground yourself. A lot of people become disoriented and overwhelmed when anxiety starts to flood in. A great way to get yourself back at the moment is to use your senses.
Try this mindfulness technique:
Notice your environment and become familiar with what’s around you. For some it’s easier to focus on what's right in front of you, like the table you’re sitting at or the inside of the car you’re in; and for others, it’s helpful to scan the space for things that would not typically be noticed, like the ceiling, the pattern on the carpet, or the plants around you outside.
Now bring attention to what you hear and smell. Just become aware of the nuances of your environment. Now bring attention to things you can touch. It could be items around you like a chair, a menu, a pen, and paper, or it could be things that are on your person like your clothes, a piece of jewelry, or a bag you have with you.
The last sense is taste. This one can be a bit tricky to tap into but can be incredibly grounding because it shifts your attention away from everything external to you and allows you to focus just on what’s in your mouth. Grab a drink and focus on the taste and sensation you get when you sip it. Or try bringing something with you like a piece of candy or gum that you can pop in without others really noticing.
The goal of this technique is to simply get familiar with what’s going on in your immediate surroundings and be intentional with your focus. You are disengaging from the anxiety and allowing yourself to settle into the space.
Challenge the Negative Thoughts That Fuel Your Fears
Anxious and fear-based thoughts are a significant part of social anxiety, so you want to learn to challenge them. It’s really hard to engage in conversation with others when there’s a blaring dialogue of negative commentary happening in your mind. “You look ridiculous. That was the wrong thing to say. They totally don’t like you. You’re being weird.”
You have to get comfortable recognizing the voice of your anxiety and insecurity and differentiating that from your true self. Often the inner dialogue is critical, but in a sense, it’s trying to protect you from the embarrassment and rejection that you fear. When you can appreciate it for it is and know that it’s not rooted in facts, then you can separate yourself enough to choose what thoughts to engage and when to just let them pass through your mind.
Try this externalizing technique:
Start by giving the anxious part of you a name; make sure it’s different from your own. Doing this creates a separation in your mind between you and your anxiety. For example, let’s use the name Frank. You are in a conversation with friends and you begin to worry that you’re not saying enough to contribute. Frank steps in and starts to tell you “You have to say something or they are going to think you’re strange or not listening. They won’t invite you out again if you aren’t more outgoing. You are a bad friend. Something is wrong with you.”
All of these statements are hurtful and may make you want to retreat to your safe zone. Instead, let’s challenge Frank. We know Frank just wants to protect you from being rejected in this scenario, so say to yourself “Frank, you’re anxious. Thank you for trying to help, but I’m ok right now. I will speak when I have something to say. I don’t have to force myself to be outgoing when it feels fake to me.”
It might seem strange to have this back and forth conversation internally, but the reality is you’re already doing this, it’s just all happening from the same perspective. Differentiating yourself from Frank (your anxiety), helps you to challenge fear-based thinking and practice self-compassion and supportive self-talk.
Prepare Yourself and GO!
Now that you have some tools in your toolbox, prepare yourself to put them into practice. Although it may seem counterintuitive, putting yourself in a social situation even though it feels terrifying is going to help you. There’s only so much you can do from your safe zone to prepare. Practice these skills in spaces that you feel comfortable in so you can build some muscle memory, so to speak, around them. Repetition helps, so make them a part of your day-to-day routine. Practicing while you’re comfortable will make it easier for you to pull out these tools when you need them in uncomfortable situations.
Start small. Rank different scenarios and experiences based on how anxious they make you feel. Maybe going out with 3 close friends for lunch is less scary than facilitating a meeting with a room full of people at your job. Pick something that you’ve ranked lower on the stress scale to start out with. Go to the event and put into practice the techniques you’ve learned and see how it goes.
When you are able to get back to your safe zone, reflect a little on what worked for you and where you could benefit from more practice. Then implement those changes next time. The goal is to build a tolerance to the distress you feel in social settings in a slow and gradual way. Be patient with yourself!
Social anxiety does not have to govern your life.
It’s possible to decrease your anxiety symptoms. It’s possible to process and work through the fears you have. It’s possible to develop the confidence in yourself needed to feel freer in social settings. Therapy, of course, is a definite resource and recommendation for those with social anxiety because it helps you develop and practice skills to reduce your symptoms and it gives you a place to do the deeper work needed to improve your confidence.
Nicole Ambrose, LCSW can provide this for you. If you’re interested in learning more about yourself and how to cope more effectively with anxiety, give her a call for a complimentary consultation. Therapy is not a one size fits all thing and Nicole will partner with you to come up with strategies that work best for your lifestyle, giving you the opportunity to grow and live with ease and authenticity.
If you’re ready to set up your complimentary consultation with Nicole, call us at 954-391-5305 today. Nicole provides counseling and EMDR for adults in Coral Springs, Florida, and across the state of Florida through our secure online counseling (telehealth) platform.