Some Practical Strategies On How To Beat Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is a debilitating condition for millions of people worldwide. However, it is such a deeply personal issue that most people never receive professional treatment. They suffer in silence while they work on refining their coping mechanisms.
The growth of Social media in recent years is helping to bring people together to share their experiences, so at least sufferers can relate, share their stories and start to understand the first great revelation: You Are Not Alone!
Lets start by describing what is ‘normal anxiety’. Yes, there is such a thing! Too often anxiety seems to be defined as completely negative. Mild levels of anxiety are actually good, because they can mobilize us into action. This is the anxiety that says “I need to get moving, I’m going to be late for that important meeting, or that test.”
The anxiety is there to spur us on. It makes us aware of the things we need to do. Such as we don’t want to let ourselves or others down. But when the event or issue has passed, we can also let go of this type of normal anxiety.
However, when anxiety starts to cause us significant distress or impairment it can become debilitating. The event or situation has passed, but the anxiety is still there. In fact, even the anticipation of an event is enough to bring on anxiety. This is where many people start to adapt and change their lives in ways that they hope will help them to cope with (and conceal) their condition.
These coping mechanism often start early in life and grow to become a part of you.
Typical Coping Mechanisms
As a teenager, I can remember rehearsing upcoming social interactions. I don’t know exactly when this started, but I remember feeling that I would die of embarrassment if I didn’t have a ready list of smart, witty things to say to people. That was my way of trying to plan ahead and control my social interactions. I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance.
At that time I thought I was pretty good at appearing to others as if I’m not nervous or anxious at all. That is until something unexpected happens and all my planned interactions gets derailed. I might get stuck in the middle of a conversation. I couldn’t think on my feet. Then someone would ask me if I’m OK…
The weird thing was that when I told people close to me about my social anxiety, they would all say ‘You’re not socially anxious! You’re so outgoing and confident. You are great to talk to…” And I would say “That’s my facade. Those are my rehearsed lines.” I would then get that look. You know the one. The one that says ‘Why are you saying that?’ No one really understood.
I can admit now there were some times when I couldn’t tell whether a conversation was something that had actually happened, or was just something I had rehearsed in my head. I think it all came from a desire to not disappoint people and to avoid failure at all costs. At that early age it was difficult to shed that insecurity and that sense of other people judging, even when you knew it’s largely untrue. Also, it doesn’t help when society teaches us to be so competitive.
New Ways of Interpreting Issues
I am a strong advocate for Therapy in battling crippling social anxiety. I believe it is critical for sufferers to learn and internalize new ways of interpreting the events and issues going on in their lives. This is about finding new ways of “countering anxiety at the source” rather than trying to manage it. In a sense, it’s about rerouting your thought processes to achieve a healthy outcome.
I have seen people who literally committed themselves to therapy because they couldn’t stand to live like that anymore. All, to a varying degree, found the process a positive experience. For some, it opened a door to a new and more peaceful life. Being around people who understand and accept you is what makes you comfortable.
4 New Rules for Engagement
So lets move on from the coping mechanisms and try some new strategies to help you become more spontaneous during normal social interaction.
1. Eye Contact
Try to maintain eye contact more during conversations. By this, I don’t mean you should enter into some kind of staring competition! Just try to keep eye contact a bit more than you usually do. This simple technique will work wonders for your confidence.
Conversations don’t always need to be about you talking about yourself. It can be so much more relaxing when you are the person asking questions and listening to others. It’s just as important to be seen as ‘interested’ as it is to be ‘interesting’. Go easy on yourself and think of this as experimenting. Have some fun. It will break up the feeling of being under pressure. Besides, people love to talk about themselves!
Here is how this strategy works. The idea is to pick subject areas that get people to talk about themselves. The most obvious ones are: Occupation, Family, Sports / recreation, Dreams. These subjects are broad enough to ask some vague questions and then follow up with more questions. Eg: Does you family live near here? Have you been watching the …….. teleseries? What ones do you like?
3. Facing Your Fears
For many people the easy course of action is to avoid fearful situations. Although this may seem to work in the short term, avoiding feared situations may also be inhibiting your emotional reactions. Over the long term, the number of situations that you fear grows as your fear becomes more general. A better strategy is to allow a gradual exposure to social situations. You can start small and build up. For example, go to a public event with a trusted friend and commit to stay for a set period of time, and then leave. Repeat this process, but this time stay a little longer. Next time you go, set a goal to have one short conversation. Challenge yourself and each time you will feel stronger and it will to reduce your social anxiety over time. To understand more about what practical steps you can take, check out my article is on this very subject. Understanding and Reducing our Fears.
4. Stop Caring (too much!)
With social anxiety, there is a battle going on inside our heads. We know that we are stressing over things that may not even be real. It’s just that we can’t stop believing it.
This strategy is not about being callous with others or shutting down our emotions. It’s about acknowledging that, in the long run, most of what we get anxious about REALLY DOESN’T MATTER. You need to train yourself to let it go, and quickly.
• Worried what someone will think of you? I DON’T CARE. That person will probably have forgotten about their interaction with you within minutes! So, stop over thinking it.
• Do something embarrassing? I DON’T CARE. You are very likely the only person who will remember and relive that embarrassing experience. Don’t believe me? Think back to something embarrassing that someone else did. Now, tell me how often you think about it?
• Need to meet a person you haven’t met before? I DON’T CARE. Look at the stranger in the eyes. Fake the confidence. Don’t think about yourself. They will forget about you as quickly as you forget about them.
The point of this strategy is to still care about yourself and your actions. BUT, by applying the I DON’T CARE attitude, you can take the edge off any tendency to obsess over your actions.
I hope that you have enjoyed this article and that you have been able to take away some practical strategies to deal with your social anxiety.