Five ways to overcome social anxiety

Five ways to overcome social anxiety

By Jackie Pacella

If you feel anxious about going to your next social event, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re actually in very good company. According to a study from 2020, researchers found that as many as 58% of Americans may have social anxiety. 

Signs of social anxiety 

Social anxiety is more than just feeling shy or nervous in social situations. If you’re wondering if you have social anxiety, here are five signs to look out for: 

• You become very fearful or anxious in situations where you could be judged by others. This might include having a conversation, meeting new people or speaking or performing in front of others. 

• You worry others will judge your behavior, especially if they see you “acting anxious.” 

• You avoid social situations, or you go to them with significant anxiety. 

• You experience more anxiety than would be expected given the actual level of threat in a situation. 

• Your symptoms cause you significant distress or disrupt your everyday life. 

Have you had these experiences for at least six months? Luckily, there are tools that can help you cope with symptoms of social anxiety. These tools can be helpful to anyone, even if you only experience some of the signs, or if you’ve been experiencing them for less than six months. 

Ways to overcome social anxiety 

The tools below can help you manage any social anxiety you may experience. 

1. Face your fears. While you may want to avoid feared social situations, avoiding them can make your anxiety worse. People with social anxiety tend to overestimate social standards, as well as the social cost of not meeting those standards. Research shows that avoiding your fears fuels anxiety because it does not give you the opportunity to test your assumptions. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to experience uncomfortable social situations, you can reevaluate the actual threat of a feared situation. This doesn’t mean you need to start with your most feared situation: Starting small helps build confidence in your ability to cope with feared situations, so you can eventually do what you fear most. 

2. Reduce unhelpful thinking patterns. People with social anxiety tend to use unhelpful thinking patterns called “cognitive distortions.” These thinking patterns make it hard to see what is actually happening in social interactions. Some examples include mindreading, assuming you know what someone else is thinking; personalizing, assuming others’ behaviors are related to you; and catastrophizing, assuming a social mistake will lead to the worst-case scenario. 

These thought patterns are unhelpful because our assumptions are often incorrect. It can be helpful to remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts – and thoughts are not always true! Next time you notice yourself feeling anxious in a social situation, ask yourself if there could be a neutral explanation for what you’re feeling. For example, if someone yawns when you make a joke, don’t just assume you’re boring. After all, they might just be tired! 

3. Avoid leaning on harmful coping strategies. Symptoms of social anxiety can feel hard to manage. It is common for people to lean on alcohol or other drugs to help you “let your guard down” in social situations; however, research shows that drinking too much can actually make your anxiety worse. One reason is biological: whether you feel hungover or not, heavy drinking the night before causes increased anxiety the next morning. The second is psychological: drinking is avoiding, and avoiding anxiety does not work. 

4. Practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves three things: self-kindness, which is being kind and understanding towards yourself, rather than self-critical and judgmental; recognizing common humanity, understanding that we are all connected by the experience of life; and mindfulness, which is the practice of nonjudgmental awareness of our experiences. 

Research shows that self-compassion can significantly reduce feelings of anxiety. When our thoughts are dominated by self-criticism, it becomes a slippery slope. Self-compassion helps you break this cycle by directly opposing insecurities. 

5. Seek out therapy. Social anxiety can sometimes be hard to take control of on your own. Therapy can help you learn to change how you think, what you do and how you feel. It is not a quick fix, but you may be pleasantly surprised by how helpful it is to get to know yourself better in a completely safe, nonjudgmental space. 

The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist at Old Town Psychology, an award-winning psychology practice in Alexandria offering therapy and cognitive assessments for all ages.