I have suffered from social anxiety for many years and I know how limiting and horrible it feels. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about how I overcame my social anxiety and how I can help other people that are suffering from it.
I have developed a few strategies that you can use to reduce your social anxiety. These are:
- Learning how to challenge your unhelpful thoughts and see things in a more realistic light.
- Reducing your tendency of focusing on yourself during social interactions.
- Removing the use o safety behaviors and gradually confronting your fears.
Challenging unhelpful thoughts
The way that we think about things has an impact on our entire life. The root of a social anxiety are unhealthy beliefs which are just thoughts we have been thinking for too long. Many of these beliefs occur outside of our control, and can be negative and unhelpful. It is therefore important to remember that they are just thoughts, without any real basis, and are not necessarily facts. Even though we may believe a lot of our unhelpful thoughts when we are nervous, it is good to remember that they should be questioned as they are often based on wrong assumptions.
You might have unhelpful thoughts about all kinds of things. Here are some examples:
Before Social Situations
- I’ll make a fool of myself
- I’ll have nothing to say
- I’ll go bright red / I’ll stammer
During Social Situations:
- Everyone’s staring at me
- I’m useless
After Social Situations
- Everyone thought I was an idiot
- I’d be better off not even bothering
- I sounded like an idiot
- I’m weird
- No-one likes me
- I’m not very funny
First you need to be able to recognise an unhelpful thought. Then you can challenge it. Being aware of the common patterns that unhelpful thoughts follow can help you to recognise when you have them. Here are some of the common patterns that our unhelpful thoughts follow:
Predicting the Future:
When we are shy or socially anxious it is common for us to spend a lot of time thinking about the future and predicting what could go wrong, rather than just letting things be. In the end most of our predictions don’t happen and we have wasted time and energy being worried and upset about them. For example:
- You worry that you will go red, stammer, and that everyone will dislike you.
- You assume that you will be the centre of attention and everyone will stare at you.
These thoughts naturally make you anxious before you even arrive in a social situation.
This means that you make assumptions about others’ beliefs without having any real evidence to support them. For example:
- He thinks I’m an idiot.
- They think I look ugly.
Such ways of thinking can soon lower our mood and self-esteem.
Taking Things Personally:
When people are socially anxious or shy, they often take things to heart. For example:
- You walk past a group who are laughing and assume the joke is at your expense.
Based on one isolated incident you assume that all others will follow a similar pattern in the future. For example:
- Because you believe that one presentation went badly, you assume all others will follow the same pattern.
What If Statements:
Have you ever wondered “what if” something bad happens? For example:
- What if nobody likes me?
- What if I run out of things to say?
These thoughts also make you dread situations beforehand.
Focusing on the Negatives:
After a social gathering, you tend to focus on the parts of the evening that you believe didn’t go well. At the same time, you gloss over positive parts of the evening. For example:
- You dwell on the one conversation which ran out of steam quickly, whilst forgetting the fact that you mingled well throughout the rest of the evening.
Do you label yourself with negative words? For example:
- I’m boring.
- I’m uninteresting.
- I’m weird.
- I’m unlovable.
These, often long held beliefs about yourself, ensure your confidence and self-esteem remains low.
Challenges to an unhelpful thought
Now you can challenge your unhelpful thoughts by asking these questions.
Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?
I never run out of things to say to my friends, so why should this be different.
What would your friend say to you if they knew what you were thinking?
They would probably say – don’t be silly, you’re always good company.
How will you feel about this in 6 months time?
I probably won’t care. Even if it goes wrong I’ll have forgotten about it by then.
What are the costs and benefits of thinking in this way?
Costs: It’s making me nervous before I even go into the situation. It’s made me feel inadequate.
Benefits: I can’t really think of any.
Is there a another way of looking at this this situation?
Even if I don’t have anything to say, it’s not just up to me to keep conversations going. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
Reducing internal focus during social interactions
When we are socially anxious, we tend to spend a lot of time concentrating on our own bodily sensations during social interactions. This is because we fear that our anxiety is visible to others. For example, we may spend time trying to judge whether we are sweating, shaking, or blushing.
Although we do this in the hope being reassured that we are not visibly anxious, this strategy actually just makes things much worse. This is because we tend to overestimate how visible our anxiety is and this of course makes us feel even more self conscious. Also, by focusing on ourselves, we are prevented from fully concentrating on the conversations around us. This naturally makes it more difficult to join properly and we usually end up interacting less well than we could. This strengthens our beliefs that we are no good in such situations. The reality is that our anxiety is a lot less visible than we think. Often we have no idea if someone is anxious or not and it can help to remember this.
Similarly, when we feel socially anxious, we tend to spend time monitoring how well we are performing during social interactions. This too prevents us from paying proper attention to the conversations we are engaged in. For example, we may spend time trying to figure out if our voice sounds shaky, or go over and over the things we have said in our minds. Again, by doing so, we end up finding it hard to follow conversations which likely makes us perform worse. Given all of this, it is helpful to try to remove this tendency to focus on ourselves. Below you will find tips designed to help you during social interactions:
- Try to spend less time focusing on your own physical symptoms in social situations.
- Remember anxiety is much less visible than you imagine.
- Even if you are visibly anxious, it does not necessarily mean that you will be thought badly of. Anxiety is something we all experience and it does not make you unusual.
- Just because you feel anxious, it does not mean that you are performing poorly.
- Remember – you are not the central focus of everyone’s attention. There are plenty of other things for people to think and talk about.
- Really try to concentrate on the conversation you are involved in. Don’t think about how you appear or how well you are performing.
- Don’t replay parts of the conversation in your mind, instead just focus on what is being said in the present moment.
- We do not need to perform perfectly or brilliantly in every social interaction we have, no-one can achieve such high standards.
- Don’t worry too much if there are silences. Everyone has a responsibility to keep conversations going. Besides, silences are ok and do not always need filled.
- Just be yourself.’ Why bother when it is impossible for everyone to like us anyway.
Removing the use of avoidance and safety behaviors
When we are socially anxious, we tend to avoid social situations (parties, speaking in front of groups, going out). However if we keep avoiding the situations we fear, we never get the chance to prove to ourselves that we can cope in them and our confidence remains low. Similarly, whenever socially anxious people do enter the situations they fear, they tend to use safety behaviors (sticking besides a good friend at a party, staying silent when in a small group to avoid looking foolish…). Although these behaviors seem to help in the short term, they are actually unhelpful. This is because they stop people from learning that they could have coped fine without relying on such things. Therefore, like avoidance, safety behaviors stop us from learning that we can cope in such situations and our anxiety towards them continues.
Because of this, the best way to reduce our anxiety towards social situations is to gradually confront them, without relying on safety behaviors. Of course, confronting social situations can be horrifying, especially given that our anxiety levels often rise when we do it. If you repeatedly allow yourself to become involved in a short conversation, rather than avoid it, you can begin to prove that you can handle these scenarios much more effectively than you think and your confidence will soon rise.