5 Ways To Manage Social Anxiety, Because Your Mental Health Is Worth It
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that roughly 15 million adults have social anxiety disorder. To clarify, social anxiety disorder is not simply shyness or introversion, but the extreme fear of being judged or persecuted in social or performance situations. Experts say that symptoms can be so severe, it can wreak havoc on people's lives and affect their relationships, academic success, and work performance. So, how do people manage social anxiety? Many people with social anxiety use a combination of therapy and medication to manage their symptoms. Still, for people who don't have access to mental health care, or are not interested in medication, it's important to have coping mechanisms and alternative treatments available. Heck, even for people who are managing their social anxiety with a therapist and medication, coping skills are pretty significant in daily life.
In reality, there are many approaches to managing all mental illnesses, including social anxiety. No quiz on the Internet or single article should constitute your entire treatment plan, and if you think you're suffering from social anxiety, making an appointment with a mental health professional is the best thing you can do for yourself. It's also beneficial to develop a support system with peers who also suffer from social anxiety, trusted friends, and loved ones.
All of this said, coping skills for managing social anxiety are useful tools to have in your arsenal. Here are a handful of recommended coping skills from mental health professionals:
1. Recognize What Is Anxiety And What Is Reality
Of course, recognizing when anxiety is stemming from anxiety as opposed to likely circumstances around you is much easier said than done. Still, psychologist Barbara Markway over at Psychology Today still recommends it as a solid starting place. Essentially, the goal is to recognize what your anxiety is in the moment (say, that you're going to a work lunch and are afraid you'll make a fool of yourself, spill your lunch all over your boss, humiliate your entire department, etc.) and compare it to the reality of the situation, based on what's happened in the past and what the situational norms are (you might make an awkward comment or two, but you're generally articulate and well-respected; you've never knocked over the snack table before, so it's unlikely you will today; etc). No one can predict the future, and everyone makes mistakes or embarrasses themselves sometimes, but it's key to identify what is rooted in anxiety and what is rooted in things which could reasonably occur.
2. Refocus Your Attention
In the same article, Markway suggests an excellent coping skill for in-the-moment social anxiety. Say you're having a casual conversation with a colleague or classmate and you begin to recognize your usual anxiety symptoms (for example, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, shaking hands, etc.). If you can't excuse yourself in the moment, it's important to have applicable coping mechanisms.
Markway suggests refocusing your attention outwards instead of inwards. So instead of focusing on your physical symptoms ("Oh goodness, my heart is pounding, I feel like I'm going to pass out"), focus on the conversation at hand; and if you feel like the conversation is getting away from you, focus on the literal person ("Amy's body language reads as really depressed" or "Sean has dark circles under his eyes") as a way to reenter the moment and conversation. Listening deeply to what the other person is saying and taking in the whole context of the situation ("Sean definitely looks tired, he likely wasn't irritated with me earlier today, but fatigued") can help lessen your anxiety as well as make you a more active participant in the conversation.
3. When It Comes To Talking, Start Small
For many people with anxiety, group settings are hugely stressful. It can be really tempting to arrive at the last minute, like right before a meeting or class starts, so you can avoid awkward small talk, but there are actually benefits to arriving early. Even 10 to 15 extra minutes gives you time to get acquainted with the physical surroundings: If you're going to a new space, you can take in the size of the room, the decorations, and find a seat you feel the most comfortable.
As people arrive, you can focus on conversations with one or two people at a time, which can feel both fulfilling socially while also feeling (less) overwhelming. As more people arrive and join the conversation, you'll already have an "in" which can also help ease performance anxiety. And remember, you don't need to constantly talk; being a good listener is a valuable skill. Once you're involved in the conversation, it's OK to take a backseat and let others talk while you show active listening skills and engagement.
4. Create Objective (And Reasonable) Goals
No one is expecting you to grab a self help manual and become a social butterfly overnight. In fact, that isn't even necessarily a healthy goal: You don't have to change your core being to please anyone. Typically, the goal in managing social anxiety is not to transform yourself as a person, but to develop coping skills so you can better function and enjoy your daily life. Social anxiety, remember, isn't just a personality thing; it's a mental illness, and it can be debilitating. That's why it's so important to make your growing goals reasonable and objective: If your older sister is the life of the party, or your BFF is always the belle of the ball, that's great for them, but you don't need to emulate that to be "normal" or "fun" (though if do you genuinely want to be the life of the party, that's OK and fun too!).
When making goals based around overcoming social anxiety, it's helpful to make lists with specific tasks and deadlines. Keeping a list or journal to reflect on your feelings and approaches can helpful, too, in determining what actually works and what doesn't. Goals can be whatever feels right to you, whether it be sitting with new people at lunch one afternoon this week or getting more comfortable talking on the phone with a pal you haven't seen in a while.
5. Remember to Breathe
Seriously. I know it sounds simple and intuitive, but focusing on your breathing is so important. No matter what is happening around you, you literally need to breathe to survive. Focusing on long, slow, and deep breaths is a great way to find your center and slow down your brain, even if just for a few seconds. There are all sorts of breathing exercises for social anxiety, and I think the best thing is to read up on them and practice them when you're not feeling anxious (say, when you're in a safe space at home) and then integrate them into your daily life and see which work best for you. If you're suffering from anxiety, you're probably all too familiar with "anxious breathing" — shallow, quick breaths and over-breathing, when you're basically breathing in too much air at a time. Focusing on getting enough air (but not too much) in and out of your body at an even and steady pace is a subtle and helpful coping skill for moments when your anxiety kicks into high gear and you can't remove yourself from the situation at hand.
In short, if you suffer from social anxiety, you are not alone. Social anxiety, like all mental illnesses, is nothing to be ashamed of and doesn't define you as a person. Most experts recommend seeing a professional if you suffer from social anxiety disorder, so if these symptoms ring a bell for you, it might be time to look into your options. Whether or not you're seeing a professional, though, I think it's always a good idea to compile your own coping mechanisms for when your social anxiety kicks in. Remember, you are not your illness, and you deserve a healthy, happy, and balanced life.