Kate is a former youth counselor with seven years of experience working with troubled young adults in the Sacramento area of California.
Social anxiety is a real downer, a real rain-on-my-parade kind of disorder. It can keep you from enjoying dinner out with your parents, a night at the movies with your boyfriend, or hanging out at a friend's house even if the only thing on the itinerary is small talkin' your way through the latest episode of This Is Us over popcorn and Twizzlers.
If you live with it then you know that it'll keep you home from parties and holiday get-togethers and make going to school and work miserable. If you've ever broken out into a cold sweat heading into the mall, felt your knees seize up at an invitation to meet for tapas after class, or felt your heart skip a few beats at the thought of celebrating your birthday in a crowded restaurant then congrats! You probably have social anxiety and it's one heckuva nuisance if you ask me or one of the other 15 million American adults with social anxiety.
Here's the thing - you're not your disorder. You're just one of many, many (many, did you just see that 15 million statistic) people dealing with social anxiety. And with so many people experiencing the same elephant-stomping-around-in-your-chest feeling when faced with even the most seemingly chill social interactions, the internet hive-mind has become a wonderfully non-social place to gather tips and resources for living better with social anxiety.
Here's six tips to help you get started.
Prayer and Meditation
In this article on Harvard's medical school site, Julie Corliss explains how meditation may lessen the negative feelings associated with anxiety by reminding you stay and think in the present moment - not twenty moments ahead.
So, instead of spending the hour before your class starts imagining all of the ways in which you're going to embarrass yourself in front of your classmates a full hour later, in a no-doubt epic manner, you should take a minute to practice meditation with an app like Calm or using the methods found in Thich Nhat Hahn's books (I'm actually currently reading his guide on everyday meditations in "Peace is Every Step").
In the same vein, prayer, if it's your thing, can be a great way to settle racing thoughts and force your mind to focus on one thought at a time as you mentally articulate what it is you're actually freaking out about and whether or not it's actually worth the panic.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the form of therapy most commonly used to help people who are struggling with anxiety. The goal of cognitive-behavioral therapy is to develop coping strategies that target negative thoughts, beliefs, behaviors and attitudes. While anxiety often leads to very real physical symptoms, it all starts in the mind. When going through CBT you'll eventually reach a point where it's time to face your fears head-on. This is a necessary step whether you choose to participate in cognitive-behavioral therapy or not.
As your thought process begins to gradually change you'll need to take the step to put yourself into what could be an uncomfortable social situation.
When I was pregnant with my first baby I was scheduled for an emergency ultrasound to check the baby's growth. Since it was an emergency, you'd have thought it was going to happen right away but no, it was scheduled for five days out and with each day I became more and more anxious, not just about what was going on with my baby (who was fine, by the way), but because it was taking place in our huuuuge hospital that I don't know my way around and oh yeah, I hate hospitals. A lot. I just kept imagining myself on the day of, rushing to this appointment with my stomach out to here, losing my way down halls and corridors with doctors and nurses and patients going "Wow, if she can't even find radiology, how's she going to raise a baby?" and then them writing some prescription that says "This woman can not possibly have a baby" and me being mortified for life.
I know that doesn't make sense but thus is the essence of social anxiety. So I ended up doing a dry-run the night before when the hospital was least busy and I had the time to spare so that 1), I was exposing myself to a situation (the hospital) that makes me super nervous, and 2) I'd be prepared and have an idea of where I was going to minimize my fear of embarrassing myself by getting lost and being late for my appointment.
With CBT you'll do similar things, but with a trained professional who will help expose you to situations that make you feel anxious without completely overwhelming you so that you'll never want to try it again. As you become more and more comfortable you'll take bigger steps and with those steps, you'll take more and more control over your social anxiety and learn coping mechanisms for when the anxiety does kick in.
To find a CBT trained therapist near you, I've found that the best way to search is on Psychology Today's website.
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Remind Yourself How Smart, Strong and Amazing You Are
...and eventually you'll believe it! Similar to the root of cognitive-behavioral therapy, positive affirmations works against the worst case scenario you're always telling yourself you'll end up in. When you constantly imagine the worst case scenarios playing out, then you eventually convince yourself that it's going to happen (and maybe it feels like it does when you have to leave a meal with your friends before dessert has even arrived because you're so terrified there's spinach in your teeth).
A huge part of social anxiety is our own negative thinking. So be intentional to speak positively about yourself to yourself and stop the negative thoughts in their tracks.
I'm sure that by now you've learned that exercising release certain chemicals in our brains that make us feel better overall. Endorphins are one of these chemicals, capable of triggering positive feelings in your body and reducing pain sensations.
While speaking positive words has the ability to physically alter the DNA of your brain, literally rewiring it, exercise is a sure and quick way to release chemicals that add to feelings of positivity and reduce stress and negative thoughts. Getting outside for fresh air a quick walk around the block is ideal but if you can't do that, or just don't feel like it, one way that I always make sure to get exercise during the day is to slap on my FitBit and some good music and just start walking around, picking up, vacuuming and hauling trash out to the garage. Once I've spent a half an hour doing that I not only feel less keyed up, my house is clean and I've got like a quarter of my steps in! I feel accomplished and that gives me confidence, confidence I need to meet my girlfriend for ice cream when she gets out of work.
Mindful breathing is one of the best tools to have in your proverbial toolbox when you're in the midst of an anxiety attack brought on by an uncomfortable social situation. As you feel your anxiety starting to ramp up, be mindful of your breathing. Take slow deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.
For a simple deep breathing exercise try this method:
- Lie flat on your back with your eyes closed.
- Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Note: The goal is to make the hand on your stomach rise, rather than the hand on your chest.
- Breathe in deeply through your nose, being intentional to pull air into your abdomen. As you inhale, imagine a positive trait or thought moving into your body.
Exhale, engaging your core to expel air from your lungs. As you exhale you want to imagine negative thoughts, traits and mindsets leaving your body.
Once you've mastered this deep belly breathing lying down at home, you'll be able to practice it standing up at a concert, sitting down at your stupid work Christmas party or in the car before heading into your great aunt's 50th birthday party.
Aromatherapy for Social Anxiety
Of all of the things that get me through tense social situations (okay, tense to me, maybe not to the rest of the world) is aromatherapy, a trick my mom taught me when I was eighteen and so nervous about walking into my math class that I was pretty sure I was failing (I was! Hurrah! Guess what? The world didn't end!) that I had a panic attack in my car.
Since then, I seriously never leave the house without some form of aromatherapy.
For my on-the-go aromatherapy I use:
- Snack sized baggies (these are half the size and sandwich baggies, the size is just convenient)
- Eucalyptus oil
- Lavender oil
- Cotton balls
To make these aromatherapy bags I take two cotton balls, drizzle them with a few drops each of whatever oil I'm using and pop them into the baggie that I then close. I personally like to have one lavender scented baggie and one eucalyptus scented baggie. Before I go in anywhere I open one up, take a deep breath, close it back up and center myself before conquering a conversation with the bank teller, putting in my order at the coffee shop and schmoozing with the other moms at the playground.
When to Talk to a Doctor About Social Anxiety
If you experience social anxiety, you should absolutely talk to your regular doctor about it. Since they know your history and background, you can work together to deal with it whether that's using the natural remedies in this article, medication which can be immensely helpful, therapy, or a combination of these methods for coping.
The biggest thing to remember about social anxiety is that you're seriously not alone. So get out there! Be social and be anxious! With 15 million others walking around with it too, there's gotta be at least one other person heading to that party tonight who's living with it too.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2018 Kate Stroud
Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on April 15, 2018:
Great article Kate! Your suggestions sound practical, do-able and not likely to add additional anxiety with the application. I've been listening to an interesting ex-therapist youtuber (Daniel Mackler) who attributes some positives to anxiety. I'm doing a mild re-frame in that way for myself.
Thanks for posting this informative article.
Angela Joseph from Florida on April 13, 2018:
Great tips here for dealing with social anxiety. I've heard that cold showers also work.