Social anxiety is a phobia in which a person experiences anxiety in social situations. People with social phobias often struggle to cope with anxiety triggered by different types of social situations. People who have social anxiety will often struggle when interacting with others. This is due to the anxious thoughts and symptoms that are triggered when confronted with a social situation like meeting new people, attending a social event or interacting with a large group of peers.

What is it Like to Have Social Anxiety?

Having social anxiety can be taxing on a person. With social anxiety it is difficult to relax, get to know people, and enjoy the moment when spending time with friends and acquaintances. Often people with social anxiety face many symptoms that make social situations difficult, like:

  • Anxious feelings when being approached by strangers or people with whom they do not have a close relationship
  • Discomfort with making small talk and engaging in conversation
  • Uncertainty about what to say or do when interacting with others
  • Extreme self-consciousness and fear of embarrassment
  • Racing negative thoughts and assumptions about what others are thinking about them
  • Excessive worrying about social situations
  • Obsessive concerns about seeming awkward to others
  • Avoidance of social situations despite the desire to develop friendships and relationships
  • Fear of judgment from others
  • Fear of rejection and vulnerability
  • Intense nervousness in social situations
  • Physical symptoms, including sweating, headaches, dizziness, difficulty with concentrating, stomachaches, shaking, and nausea

People with social anxiety struggle to cope with engaging in different types of social situations. Such examples of social situations that are difficult for people with social anxiety include:

  • Performing, presenting, hosting or public speaking
  • Meeting new people
  • Being assertive or direct
  • Making small talk or getting to know others
  • Conflict and confrontation
  • Social gatherings or social events that require interacting with others
  • Dating and building relationships with others
  • Working in small groups or with peers
  • Large crowds
  • Being the focus of attention

How to Overcome Social Anxiety

Humans are by nature social creatures, and crave relationships with others. Having social anxiety makes the very idea of opening oneself up to social situations so distressing that it can cause a person to mentally shut down. The reality for people who suffer from social anxiety is that even something as simple as waiting in line at a grocery store can cause a person to become anxious.

Social anxiety has varying degrees of severity. What may be stressful for some may not be a trigger for others. In some cases of severe anxiety a person can see a task as simple as answering a telephone enough to trigger symptoms. At any degree of severity social anxiety has an impact on the sufferer’s overall quality of life. Fortunately, there are therapeutic techniques to help a person overcome social anxiety. Some of these techniques are discussed next.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective form of therapy for social anxiety because it targets the automatic negative thoughts in reaction to social situations. Common automatic negative thoughts include:

  • “I don’t fit in here I want to leave so I don’t embarrass myself”
  • “What I just said/did made that person think I am awkward. I am an awkward person I make others feel uncomfortable”
  • “Nobody understands me, I will never fit in”
  • “My boss keeps asking me about my work progress. He must think I am a failure”
  • “I don’t want to go to this party. I will just end up standing awkwardly in the corner anyway. If anyone tries to speak to me I will make a fool of myself”

CBT will help a person learn how to challenge these kinds of negative thoughts to make the anxious feelings and negative self-talk less intense.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) is also a helpful form of therapy because it helps a patient understand how the anxious feelings will fuel the negative thoughts that cause discomfort. DBT offers mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness skills that will teach a patient to not allow the anxious feelings and thoughts to hinder his or her ability to appropriately function in a given social setting.

Each of these therapeutic techniques is effective in teaching ways to cope with social anxiety. Some fundamental lessons you will learn regarding social anxiety and social situations are:

  • People can empathize. Everyone has been nervous in a social situation at some point in his or her life. While it may seem like you are making the situation uncomfortable or think you may be poorly presenting yourself, it is important to remember that everyone has been there before, and the people you are nervous around are probably not making judgments about you.
  • Each awkward moment is 10x worse in your mind. You will remember each moment that you obsess over, whether it be stuttering over your words or not having the right answer, much longer than that other person. Most embarrassing moments that we remember about ourselves are fleeting, if noticed at all by others. This means that the assumption that others think you are awkward or strange is created by you, and is likely not how others feel.
  • Have confidence. You are no better or worse than anyone you come into contact with. Each person has his or her own story, circumstances, fears, and shortcomings. If you project relaxed confidence that is what the other person will see, not your anxious behavior.
  • Learn effective conversational skills:
    • Ask questions to stimulate conversation
    • Do not be afraid to respond to questions- The person you are speaking with is asking you to engage you, he or she wants to keep the conversation going and wants to get to know you. If you find yourself stumbling over your thoughts or words, try taking in a deep breath or taking a sip of water before responding. This will give you time to relax and formulate a response.
    • Keep eye contact
    • Keep open and relaxed body language (Open arms at your sides, no fidgeting, stand up straight with shoulders high, Hold chin up, etc.)

Most importantly, forgive yourself. Do not fixate on any negative, embarrassing or awkward fears or concerns. Remember, they are always worse in your head than they are in reality. It is okay to laugh those moments off and maintain composure. It will take time to engage all of these skills, but you will see the difference in yourself and others as long as you commit to your own growth and improvement.