Three Tips to Manage Social Anxiety
To most people, the idea that someone could be petrified by social interaction seems ridiculous. How could anyone not love talking and hanging out with other people? We are social creatures after all.
But there are some of us who, unfortunately, do not feel so enthralled by a social life. In fact, such situations generate intense feelings of anxiety. These individuals can be classified as living with social anxiety.
What is Social Anxiety
Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is defined by an intense, long-term fear of social situations. This goes beyond normal shyness and can create significant difficulties in a person’s life.
It doesn’t matter how big or small the social situation is, either. Attending a large networking event and going out with coworkers for a drink can result in the same anxious state.
Social anxiety is often misunderstood by those who haven’t dealt with this phobia. It can be difficult to truly understand the feelings going on inside someone else. This is especially true when a situation can cause such different emotional reactions.
Most people love hanging out with friends, going to social events, and meeting new people. To them, these interactions generate feelings of joy and community. However, someone with social anxiety will experience these situations in a completely different way. Their reactions will be that of dread and panic.
That’s why feeling empathy towards someone with social anxiety can be troublesome. When a situation brings you such positive emotions, it’s hard to imagine the pain it could be causing someone else.
For this reason, many individuals with social anxiety will suffer in silence. Not being forthcoming about your anxiety can lead to others having a faulty perception of you, something I myself have experienced on countless occasions.
Social Anxiety Misinterpreted
If you weren’t aware that someone felt anxious in social situations, how would you perceive their quiet and reclusive nature? If you’re like many people I have talked to, you would assume the individual to be rude, arrogant, and like they didn’t want to be there.
An example that comes to mind was a conversation I had with a teammate this past season. It was about two weeks into spring training and he struck up a conversation with me. We exchanged pleasantries and admiration for each other’s play, and then he began asking me why I was so quiet.
I explained to him how social situations, especially ones where I don’t know anyone, lead to me feeling anxious. When I find myself in that anxious state, I naturally keep to myself as a safety mechanism.
He was a very understanding listener. Once I was finished he went on to tell me how his first impression was that I was arrogant and thought I was better than everyone. I told him how I was definitely not arrogant, and in fact, I’d just been dealing with feelings of anxiety and insecurity.
I’ve come to realize that people who do not understand social anxiety tend to automatically think a quiet person who isn’t very social is arrogant or pompous. But that’s just not the case. What’s actually happening is the person is simply afraid.
As someone with social anxiety, this can lead to frustration. When others don’t understand the severity of your struggle, they may push you into situations with which you are not comfortable. You then push back, only to be misconstrued as being rude.
This miscommunication can result in strained relationships and make life difficult for the one dealing with social phobia.
"I’ve come to realize that people who do not understand social anxiety tend to automatically think a quiet person who isn’t very social is arrogant or pompous. But that’s just not the case. What’s actually happening is the person is simply afraid."
Signs and Symptoms of Social Anxiety
Social anxiety goes beyond shyness. When you are faced with a social situation, you’ll experience anxiety before, during, and after the event. This can lead to low levels of self-confidence, depression, and wreak havoc on your relationships.
If you get anxious every once in a while, that’s normal. We all grow worried about social interactions from time to time. Social anxiety does not refer to the nerves you feel leading up to a date or an interview, for example.
Rather, this phobia consumes your whole life. Any interaction or situation that is perceived by your mind to be socially involved sparks deep feelings of dread. There’s no doubt this will have a negative impact on your life.
That’s why understanding whether you or someone close to you has social anxiety is the first step towards progress. Social anxiety will be accompanied by these common symptoms, broken down into two categories: emotional/behavioral and physical.
- Fear of situations where you will be the center of attention.
- Being anxious during typical social interactions, such as dinner, having drinks with friends, or meetings.
- Feeling nervous to speak up in class.
- Avoiding social events like parties or networking events.
- Avoiding jobs where you may have to speak or talk to strangers.
- Feeling anxious to go to school or work.
- Avoiding going on dates and meeting new friends.
- Rapid heartbeat
- Dizziness or lightheadedness
- Having your mind go blank.
- Shortness of breath
The emotional/behavioral symptoms are what you want to look to first when trying to decide if you have social anxiety. The physical symptoms will occur before, during, or after an event that leads to you feeling anxious.
The behavioral symptoms can be summed up as any event that entails social interaction. The severity of your anxiety may change, but if you have social phobia, any situation that you feel will involve other people watching you or you having to speak will result in fear.
Don’t Hide Behind Fake Confidence
I have been guilty of this, as I know many who deal with social anxiety have been as well. When researching social anxiety, a repeating pattern became clear, something that I have noticed in my own life.
When we have social anxiety, a common solution is to create what I like to call fake confidence.
Our lives are full of social interactions, which means, plenty of opportunities to feel anxious. If you don’t want to be inhibited from experiencing life, you have to come up with a solution. Now, in the next section, we will uncover some healthy ways you can go about doing this. But, we all know the attractiveness of instant results.
That is what fake confidence can provide: quick relief from anxiety.
There are many ways you can generate a feeling of confidence, but the most common ones I’ve seen are drinking and drug use. By altering your state through external devices, anxiety can be eliminated in a moment.
However, this is only a quick fix. It does not dig to the root of the problem. What’s worse, is the more you partake in this behavior, the more dependent you become on these substances. While it may be easy, and seem like a harmless solution, creating fake confidence is not the best option for handling your social anxiety.
So, if you’re ready to truly take control of your social phobia, let go of the quick fixes and get ready to put in some work. In the long run, you’ll be thankful you did.
"There are many ways you can generate a feeling of confidence, but the most common ones I’ve seen are drinking and drug use. By altering your state through external devices, anxiety can be eliminated in a moment."
Healthy Tips to Handle Your Social Anxiety
In the previous section, I admitted to being guilty of looking to substances to aid in my social anxiety. Now, I never let this get too out of hand. But on occasion, I would drink to calm my nerves when I felt the situation would lead to anxiety.
I know how easy this can be, but there was always one major problem, I felt cowardly. The confidence and calmness were not real. Instead of owning up to my anxiety and working through it, I was escaping.
Finally, I decided to make a change. I wanted to become truly confident and self-assured in social interactions. That is when I came across three tips that I continue to put into practice today. While I still may not be completely comfortable in all situations (who really is anyway), I can now say my confidence and courage have grown to where anxiety no longer inhibits me from being social, when I want to at least.
It’s all about consistency and taking that first step, which is to decide that you want to make a change. If you do, then I know these three tips will help.
Turn to Your Thoughts
There is a direct relation between your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. That is the basis on which cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is built. It all begins with a thought. From there, an emotion is created, with action being driven by the previous two factors.
So, with CBT, the aim is to attack the root cause. With social anxiety, this is going to be the thoughts you experience in relation to social situations. These can be broken down into two different categories: the thoughts you have about what might happen and the negative self-talk that takes place.
You can either seek out a mental health professional to help you perform CBT, or you can work on altering your thoughts on your own. Let’s take a look at a process you can use for yourself.
First, you must examine what thought patterns you currently exhibit. To do this, try answering the following questions:
- What thoughts come to your mind when thinking about a social situation?
- What are you afraid might happen?
- What thoughts do you have after a social event?
- Was there a triggering event that led to your social anxiety?
- What is your self-talk like before, during, and after a social interaction?
Once you answer these questions, it’s time to take action.
Reframe Your Thinking
When it comes to your thought patterns, you have to understand the way our brains work. Our minds function off repetition. For how long have you immediately thought negatively about a social situation? How many times have you told yourself you get anxious in social interactions? For how long have you spoken negatively to yourself?
The reason these thought patterns exist is due to the continual repetition of them. I spent years speaking negatively to myself and allowing worrisome thoughts to enter my mind. That led to my mind automatically generating those thoughts.
But we can change that. If repetition created the problem, then repetition will be the solution.
For each one of the worrisome and negative thoughts you discovered while answering the questions, create a positive alternative. How do you want to think in terms of social situations? How do you want to speak to yourself?
Now repeat these statements at least twice a day. The more you do this, the more you are reframing the way you think. It’s not easy, but try your best to consciously repeat these statements whenever you are in an anxious situation.
Change Your Self-Perception
Along with the way we think, how we see ourselves plays an integral role in social anxiety. Right now, you probably hold onto the view that you are an anxious person. But why is that? Well, it’s because you’ve seen yourself become anxious time and time again, so that’s become your self-image.
Reframing your thinking will help in shifting this view, but there is another way that works alongside changing your thoughts. You need to see and feel yourself being confident and relaxed in the environments that usually spawn anxiety.
To do this in real life right away can be terrifying. That’s why there is a safe alternative: visualization.
Visualization allows you to create a scene in your mind, depicting an anxious situation. See yourself in that environment, feeling confident and relaxed. The more you do this, the more you will ingrain that memory in your mind and shift your self-image.
"For how long have you immediately thought negatively about a social situation? How many times have you told yourself you get anxious in social interactions? For how long have you spoken negatively to yourself?"
Focus on Others
When you’re in a situation where you become anxious, what are you focusing on? I know that all I used to focus on was my anxiety. My attention would be fixed on why I was feeling anxious, how I could fix it, and if others could tell I was so scared.
All focusing on your anxiety does is further perpetuate anxious feelings. So, you need to change that. Since anxiety is such an intense and painful emotion, it can be difficult not to focus on, especially if you are afraid other people may notice you being anxious.
But, you are only making matters worse by turning your attention inward. What I want you to do is begin focusing on others. I know this may sound strange, since you feel they are the ones responsible for your anxiety, however, this is a powerful way to stop focusing on yourself.
If you’re talking to someone, engage with what they are saying. Ask them questions and become genuinely interested in them. If you are in class or listening to someone talk, give them your full attention.
When having to speak to others, think about how you are helping them. Instead of being focused on whether they can tell that you’re anxious or trying to not feel so scared, think about the value you are providing them.
Switching where you place your attention will make the situation less about you and more about the people you are interacting with.
Set Small Challenges
Once you begin to alter your self-perception through visualization, it’s time to take it up a notch. Now you want to actually see yourself successfully interact socially in real life. It’s a good idea to keep up with your visualization because paired with real-life successes, your self-image will rapidly change.
What you want to do is begin setting small challenges for yourself. And I mean small. There is no situation too silly or simple. A simple hello to a stranger walking on the street will suffice. But, seek to make these challenges bigger as you feel more comfortable.
One of the difficutlies when trying to set challenges for yourself is accountability. When anxiety is the driving force behind not wanting to do something, it can be difficult to find the will to push through. There are two strategies to help hold yourself to the challenges you set.
The first one is journaling. Once you write a goal down, it becomes real. You see it there on paper and have to own up to the fact of whether or not you did it. By going back over your goals each night, you keep yourself accountable for whether or not you succeeded.
Another option is to find an accountability partner. Look to someone who you trust to help on your journey. Explain to them how you would like to overcome social anxiety and are setting small challenges for yourself.
Ask them to check in on you to make sure you’re following through with your goals. Doing so will help to make sure you do what you said you would do.
The more challenges you accomplish, the more confident you will feel. Over time this process will work to eliminate a lot of the social anxiety you currently feel.
Social anxiety is a phobia that can truly keep you from living a fulfilled life. Having dealt with this fear most of my life, I understand the frustration it creates. No one wants to feel inhibited to experience life due to anxiety.
You no longer have to allow anxiety to control who you are and what you do. Make the decision right now to change how anxiety impacts your life. It is not an easy process, but it is definitely worth it.
I am not fully comfortable in all situations, but I am better off than I used to be. By altering your thinking, focusing on others, and setting small challenges, I know you can begin to feel a reprieve from your social phobia.
How has social anxiety impacted your life?
If you would like a more tailored approach to overcoming social anxiety, one-on-one coaching can provide just that. Through mental performance coaching, a detailed plan will be created to help you build confidence, self-worth, and positive self-talk.
If you are interested in learning more about mental coaching and how to get started, click here.
I hope this article was helpful, and if you enjoyed it please feel free to share it so others may begin to reduce the impact social anxiety has on their life.
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.
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Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.eli's story
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