It is normal for people to feel nervous or self-conscious on occasion, such as when giving a speech or walking into a job interview. However, social anxiety, or social phobia, is more than just occasional nervousness.
Fear of certain social situations is the hallmark of social anxiety disorder. This is especially true in situations where you feel others will be watching or evaluating you. You may feel anxious just thinking about these situations or want to avoid them at all costs, resulting in a disruption of your life.
Moreover, social anxiety may lead to emotional, physical, and behavioral symptoms. These can range from intense worry for days, nausea, racing heart, or drinking to settle your nerves.
Some of the most common examples include:
Speaking during a meeting
Making phone calls
Eating in a restaurant
Being called on in class
Going on a date
Using a public restroom
Attending large gatherings or parties
Regardless of the exact situation, fear of being scrutinized, judged, or embarrassed is what drives social anxiety disorder. You may be worried about how people will see you or that you won't measure up. While you know that you are probably overreacting to your fears of being judged, you still feel anxious even though these fears are irrational.
However, no matter how painfully shy you may be or how bad your anxiety might be, you can reclaim your life and enjoy social situations.
1. Identify the situations that trigger anxiety.
The symptoms of social anxiety differ from person to person.
In situations where you worry about being judged, such as ordering food at a restaurant or excusing yourself to use the restroom, you might feel anxious. Meanwhile, you might be fine just being around others - as long as they don't expect you to talk a lot.
You can take the first step toward finding solutions by discovering the reasons and times you feel anxious.
It might also help to make a list of the situations you feel incapable of facing, the ones that cause the most discomfort for you. These might include:
Interviewing for a job
Asking a professor or boss for help
Getting to know someone you're attracted to
2. Challenge negative thoughts.
If you think about those social situations you just listed, you probably dwell a lot on their potential negative outcomes. Some examples would be tripping, accidentally saying the wrong thing, or getting sick in front of others.
Sometimes these things happen, and they can certainly be uncomfortable. Even though it might be scary to imagine yourself in a similar situation, try to stay calm.
Just because you made a social blunder doesn't mean you'll be mocked, bullied, or shunned. The situation may bring back memories of their own and they may demonstrate empathy and compassion. Even reminiscing about awkward past experiences could lead to a new friendship.
A technique called realistic thinking can be helpful when you are feeling overwhelmed by anxious thoughts. Ask yourself some simple questions about the situation that's worrying you and answer them honestly.
3. Play the “worst-case scenario” game.
In case you're anticipating anxiety symptoms, ask yourself: what's the worst that could happen?
“Often, we don’t realize what our anxiety is being driven by,” explains Samantha Kingma, LMFT. “When we acknowledge and even say out loud our worst fear, we realize that they aren’t actually realistic.”
For example, if you feel anxious before a school day, think about the worst scenario. You may think something like, “I trip and fall in front of everyone. Everyone laughs at me. They tell me they never want to hang out with me again. Then, I have no friends.”
Maybe that's your fear. However, if you take it too far, you may realize that some of it can happen, but it's not logical to believe it will all happen.
It may sound counterproductive to think about your worst fears, but it can help you approach the situation based on evidence and probability, instead of your irrational thinking.
Moreover, you may realize you possess the strength and skills necessary to cope with a possible, realistic outcome.
“If you are feeling anxious about a presentation at work or school, identifying that you are most afraid of stumbling over your words or having others see you tremble can often take away some of the power of that fear,” says clinical psychologist Tynessa Franks, Ph.D.
4. Try relaxation techniques.
Exercises that calm your body can help you cope with anxiety, fear, and other emotional symptoms. They can also assist in reducing physical symptoms such as difficulty breathing, sweating, or a pounding heart.
One such relaxation exercise is the 4-7-8- breathing technique:
Take a deep breath through your nose for a count of four seconds.
Hold your breath for seven seconds.
Exhale slowly for eight seconds.
5. Gradually introduce yourself to anxiety-inducing situations.
Psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD suggests what she calls “situational exposure.” Choose a scenario that makes you anxious, and gradually increase the difficulty level while practicing relaxation techniques. “For example, if you have a fear of large groups, and you’ve been mostly avoiding group activities, start by going out with a friend one on one,” she explains. “Then work your way up to going out with a small group of friends.”
Continue practicing until you are more comfortable before attempting to go to a restaurant, a bar, or a party where more people will be present. With the support of a therapist, you can also practice situational exposure, Dr. Potter says. “Like cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy is a type of treatment a trained psychologist can provide.”
6. Adopt an anti-anxiety lifestyle.
More and more research suggests that what you do to your body and how you treat it dramatically affect how anxious you are, how well you manage anxiety symptoms, and how confident you are overall.
Changes to your lifestyle aren't enough to overcome social anxiety disorder or social phobia, but they can support your overall healing process. You can reduce your overall anxiety level by following the following lifestyle tips:
Since caffeine is a stimulant, try to limit your consumption.
You can benefit from eating foods containing omega-3 fatty acids to improve your mood, outlook, and handle anxiety.
Try to get 30-minutes of physical activity per day.
Get enough quality sleep since sleep deprivation can lead to anxiety.
Only drink in moderation and quit smoking.
7. Talk with a therapist.
In some cases, it's not possible to work through social anxiety symptoms on your own. In fact, in order to manage anxiety and distress, there are many things that you can do on your own. However, seeking professional assistance is always advisable.
Specifically, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is shown to be most effective in the treatment of social anxiety disorder. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the premise that your thoughts influence your feelings, and your feelings influence your behavior. By changing your perspective on social situations that bring you anxiety, you will function and feel better.
CBT may also assist in reducing anxiety's physical symptoms, challenging negative thoughts, and systematically facing social situations you are afraid of.