How to Overcome Social Anxiety With This Four-Step System
Social anxiety doesn’t have to be debilitating!
There are those who seem able to enter any social situation without a care in the world, breezing through conversation to conversation, working the room, effortlessly charming everyone they meet. There are those who enter social situations and sit back, preferring to people-watch, observe, and be selective in the way they communicate with others.
A simple way to categorize these two types of people, at the risk of minimizing them to a label, would be to describe them as either an extrovert or an introvert. Two polar opposites, it would seem. However, appearances can be deceiving. When it comes to social anxiety, the loud and eccentric can suffer as much as the quiet and reserved.
A shining example is Ryan Reynolds, one of Hollywood’s most charismatic actors, who has experienced anxiety. In his own words, he’s struggled “in the lighthearted ‘I’m anxious about this’ kind of thing, and the depths of the darker end of the spectrum, which is not fun.”
Allow this to be a reassurance that anxiety disorders are common, and can affect anyone.
This article will provide an overview of social anxiety, including its signs, the emotional and physical symptoms associated with it, and common causes. More importantly, it will offer you a four-step system to overcoming social anxiety by bringing together some of the most effective approaches in numerous fields.
It’s worth noting these steps don’t only apply to serious social anxiety, but anyone struggling with nerves in social situations.
What is social anxiety?
Subconsciously looking for validation or social approval is an innate quality of human nature. Nerves are part and parcel of many social interactions. But when does nervousness become a more serious issue? When does social anxiety start to affect the quality of relationships? The spectrum from shyness to nervousness is vast.
The Anxiety & Depression Association of America defines social anxiety, or social phobia, as: “intense anxiety or fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected in a social or performance situation.” The level of anxiety is to such a degree that social situations are dreaded or avoided. Certain social situations can even trigger panic attacks or having to leave the situation completely.
Social anxiety disorder affects approximately 15 million Americans. It can have a debilitating impact on someone’s quality of life, shrinking their world as they avoid situations that will trigger anxiety, from partying with friends, to career opportunities or new hobbies. As someone who used to experience extreme anxiety, I can vouch for how painful anxiety in social situations can be, and how much it dictates the choices you make.
Social anxiety is distinct from other types of anxiety. Some people don’t experience high levels of anxiety in other areas of life, but struggle socially. Whereas others experience a generalized sense of anxiety, which includes social situations. For the purpose of finding solutions, though, this distinction doesn’t make too much difference, as the steps below help with general anxiety too.
Signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder
Anxiety isn’t exclusively a mental health issue. It also has an intense physical effect. Healthy nervousness might consist of butterflies in the stomach and a certain level of excitability. Social anxiety, however, is a whirlwind of unpleasant physical sensations, from a rapid heartbeat, weakness at the knees, cold sweats, hot flushes, dizziness, tension in the shoulders or jaw, difficulty breathing, or feeling sick.
From my experience, the word terror feels more apt. Because of this, the desire to flee situations can feel like a genuine flight for survival, due to the danger the body perceives. A simple dinner or house party might feel like existential doom. And that’s downplaying it.
Other signs and symptoms of social anxiety disorder are:
- Intense fear with public speaking or meeting strangers
- Avoidance or discomfort when making eye contact
- Fear of crowded places
- Eating in public
- Entering rooms with groups of people alone
- Fear of speaking on the phone
- An excessive amount of worry and fear about upcoming social plans
What causes social anxiety disorder?
If you were to ask a mental health specialist or an expert in cognitive behavioral therapy, they would tell you that there’s no single answer as to what causes social anxiety disorder. Everyone has their individual journey, and unique experiences, trauma, or poor coping mechanisms.
However, a mental health professional will also tell you that there tend to be a number of essential ingredients that make some people more susceptible to the extreme ends of social anxiety. They include:
This involves putting a lot of pressure on oneself to “perform” in a certain way in social situations. Perfectionism, ironically, has the reverse effect. For example, someone who believes a presentation has to be perfect might feel more anxiety symptoms, and not be able to deliver their message as effectively, as someone who puts less pressure on themselves.
Fear of rejection or abandonment
Social anxiety disorder often links to fears of rejection or abandonment. If I do X, then I might be rejected by the group. This belief creates a mental framework of “high stakes”. During childhood, and back in time during tribal communities, being rejected was a serious risk to survival.
Fear of judgment
In addition to being rejected, the fear of being judged by others is often as pervasive. Will people think I’m stupid? Will I say something to upset someone? Will I humiliate myself? These are all negative thoughts that can contribute to intense feelings of social anxiety.
The desire to avoid being authentic due to the fear of upsetting, disappointing, or letting others down, is a big precursor to anxiety. It leads to people taking excessive levels of responsibility for other people’s emotions.
Fear of appearing anxious
Another counterintuitive symptom of social anxiety is the attempt to cover up any signs of anxiety. I’ve been in this situation many times, such as noticing I’m shaking and trying to hide it, or “acting cool,” and every time it only served to exacerbate the problem.
This psychological theory explains how we tend to overestimate how much attention people show to us in social situations. When feeling like the center of attention, that “all eyes on you” feeling ramps up feelings of anxiety to an unbearable degree.
Treating social anxiety disorder
There are numerous different approaches to treating social anxiety as a mental health condition. There are different types of talking therapies that can help, along with anti-anxiety meditations in some situations.
Personally, I see medication as a temporary support system while the underlying issues are worked on. I was on medication at one point, and it helps “take the edge” off the way I was feeling, but it wasn’t a long-term fix.
Of course, it’s always best to talk with a professional if anxiety is having a significant impact on your life. However, it’s possible to make positive steps forward through self-help. That doesn’t mean superficial “positive thinking” but practical tools that have been verified by professionals in the field, or others who have been through their own journey of healing.
Four steps to overcoming social anxiety
Before we dive in, a moment to expand on what “overcoming” means. I’m at a point in my life that I would never have dreamed of years ago, in terms of how little anxiety I feel. I host group events and a podcast, and I’m a public speaker. Yet I still get times where anxiety strikes, more socially than professionally. That’s just shyness, and is normal and healthy.
Your journey of overcoming social anxiety is one of small wins and patience. If in one moment you were afraid, but speak up, you’ve overcome anxiety. If you go ahead with social plans when you want to cancel, that’s overcoming anxiety. It’s important to start from ground zero, and not to allow the perfectionist to take charge of your recovery.
With that said, here are four steps that will help you on your way:
- Reframe negative thoughts
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used therapies for social anxiety and anxiety in general. There’s a reason for that: it’s effective. The beauty of CBT is its practicality and the ease with which it can be applied. The essence is to spot cognitive distortions that cause maladaptive or unskillful behaviors, like the examples given above, and reframe them in a helpful way.
By reframing thoughts, you’re getting your mind on side, like a friend, not an enemy. Then, you act in ways that are self-serving. This is a great antidote to the vicious cycle of avoidance that comes with anxiety.
I always use the pointer of reframing in the way you would a good friend. It saturates negative thoughts with a healthy dose of self-compassion. For example, “I’m going to make a fool of yourself” would be reframed to something more understanding, such as:
“I’m afraid of making a fool of myself, and that’s normal. But even if I socialize, and do something silly, that shows I’m human. Not only that, I can think of many people whose ‘foolish’ behavior is endearing, and makes them more likable.”
The key steps with reframing negative thoughts are:
Spot the thought
Highlight the unhelpful thought through journaling or, with the right level of self-awareness, in the moment. If I’m feeling anxious, I always ask myself: what thoughts are adding to this anxiety right now?
Offer another perspective, one which is more compassionate and one which will lead to healthier, more self-serving behavior.
Then, act in accordance with the new line of thinking. If the thought is making you want to cancel, make the commitment to showing up.
- Practice breathing techniques
The breath bridges body and mind, and is a physical exercise that can do a great deal of good. It’s remarkable how much of a difference taking conscious control of the pace and rhythm of the breath has on anxiety.
Generally, when in an anxiety-evoking situation, the mind and body go on autopilot. Breathing becomes shallow and rapid, which contributes to the physical feeling of anxiety. It can feel as if your body is at the mercy of negative thoughts.
However, there’s always an opportunity to slow the breath, and to breathe more deeply into the diaphragm. This is a big step in feeling more “in control” during spells of anxiety.
Studies have shown that diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest-and-digest” mode, which is the opposite of “fight-or-flight.” It also stimulates the vagus nerve, which runs between the lungs and the brain, which regulates crucial bodily functions such as mood, heart rate, digestion, and immune response.
There are many different types of breathing techniques. However, one incredibly simple and effective approach is as follows:
- Start by noticing how you’re breathing in the moment. Are you taking shallow breaths? Are you holding your breath?
- Exhale gently through your mouth, pause for one second, and inhale as deeply into your stomach as you can through your nose. You can place your hand on your stomach as a guide to help.
- Be gentle and slow with each breath. You might wish to count from 1 to 5 when breathing to regulate the pace.
- Do this for 3 to 5 minutes as you feel your breathing begin to settle.
- Start a mindfulness practice
Reframing thoughts and controlling the breath is a great start in regulating the foundation of social anxiety. Mindfulness is another powerful tool for one particular reason — curiosity. If you’re able to shift from fearing anxiety, to being curious and inquisitive, you take away a large part of the resistance to those feelings.
And, if you don’t resist the feeling of anxiety that social situations may trigger, you won’t actually resist the social situation.
Mindfulness stems from Buddhist philosophy. It’s an approach of non-judgment towards all thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Rather than judging the experience, you learn to observe and be aware. Part of the process of increasing self-awareness is that you begin to see the components of social anxiety. This breaks it down and makes it feel more achievable to overcome.
A basic technique is to practice observing social anxiety when it arises. Pay attention to the thoughts, the sensations in the body. Notice whenever you resist or try to “run away” from the sensations. If you lose focus and feel completely caught up in the anxiety, bring your attention back to the present moment and the space of observation.
With curiosity and non-judgment, you’ll start to disintegrate the label — “this is social anxiety” — into its smaller parts. It becomes an experience, not an overbearing entity you have to somehow conquer. Through this process, you’ll notice certain traits that might make the issue worse, like negative judgments of anxiety such as “here we go again” or “not now!”, both of which are forms of resistance.
As strange as it sounds, one of my breakthroughs with my mindfulness practice was my first mindful panic attack. It was a peculiar experience, because while I was feeling the extreme anxiety, I suddenly became aware that there was a part of me separate from it, just observing. I was no longer entrenched in the experience, but witnessing it from a healthy distance.
- Practice social skills
The first three steps are inner-work, focusing on your relationship to the subjective experience of social anxiety itself. The fourth step is outward-focused. After all, social anxiety is based on how you relate with other people.
I wish to note that this isn’t a case of trying to become as confident, charming, or charismatic as possible so that the anxiety disappears by itself. Instead, these social skills are small hacks that shift attention and create more harmony.
Focus on other people
Social anxiety obsesses over how you’re being, whether you’re appearing too anxious, whether you’re saying or behaving in the right way. There’s a whole lot of self-commentary.
One shift that helps combat this is to focus on other people. When you prioritize making others feel comfortable, or seen, or valued, you end up focusing more on compassion and connection than individual concerns.
I can’t tell you the amount of relief that comes from being honest. You’ll be surprised how much understanding people show if you say openly: “actually, I’m feeling anxious right now.” You might even find the others feel similar, too. What better way to create an authentic connection!
To counteract feelings of perfectionism, reduce your expectations on how you believe you should behave. If you’re feeling tired, accept that you’re not in full form. If you’re struggling to know what to say, accept that it’s all part of being human.
When my social anxiety was at its worst, I would place myself in a position where I felt like it was me vs. everyone else. Look at all those people, having fun. Look at those people at ease. Something amazing happened when I recognized this: I noticed more nuance in social settings.
I noticed that others were showing signs of being anxious or feeling a bit awkward. This shared humanity makes social situations so much easier, as it creates a sense of togetherness.
Social anxiety is something you can overcome, moment by moment, day by day, and you don’t necessarily need to join mental illness support groups to get over this affliction.
Instead, be kinder and more patient with yourself on the journey. Remember the growth mindset: always look to make small progress, and learn, along the way. Understand there aren’t magic fixes, yet the anxiety itself isn’t fixed. It’s not a life sentence or something set in stone. Even those with extreme anxiety can drastically reduce its impact on their life — I know because I’m one of them.
There is a counterintuitive element to overcoming social anxiety. The more you ease up on yourself and let go of high expectations, the more you invite and allow feelings of nervousness, the more you can embrace your flaws or mistakes, the more likely you are able to share your gifts with others, free from harsh self-judgment or restriction.
There are no mistakes in life, and you reading this article, right now, is for a reason. You’re awesome, and you have plenty of value to contribute to other people’s lives. Remember that. Take a deep breath. And get ready to interact with others knowing you have the opportunity to have a positive impact on their day. What better gift is there than that?