Say "social anxiety" and the first thing that comes to mind might be struggling with big groups of friends, or going to a party where you don't know anyone. But what about how to manage social anxiety at work? You have to show up and put in the hours to get by, but when you're surrounded by colleagues, constantly invited to meetings and potentially moments away from a confrontation at any time, the workplace can feel like a much bigger challenge than even the most intimidating of friend-based interactions.
The workplace is a fundamentally social setting, where you encounter other people, and negotiate their opinions and emotions. Add to it the pressure to perform and you've got the perfect social anxiety storm. And it's not just anxiety. Many mental health conditions are common among UK workers, with 1 in 3 in the workforce experiencing stress and depression as well as anxiety, according to a report by PWC.
And it's certainly nothing to be ashamed about, as Mind's Emma Mamo told Bustle: “These problems can affect anyone - no matter what our line of work. We all have mental health just as we all have physical health, and it fluctuates from good to poor.
"Around one in four people will experience a mental health problem in any given year — such as depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia — and may need extra support at work," she added.
So what can you do the next time you find yourself analysing that interaction with your desk mate over and over from all different angles, or ducking out of work drinks because you fear you'll say the wrong thing? From learning to accept your anxious feelings to arranging a candid chat with your manager, these tips should help.
1. Accept Your Anxiety
Even though it can be tempting, trying to suppress your anxiety or wish it away is unlikely to help. If you practise accepting it and seeing it as a normal response to something you find stressful, it'll probably have much less power over you. Clinical psychologist Dr Marla Deibler told Business Insider UK that your anxiety might be trying to tell you something, so don't ignore it. "Everyone experiences anxiety. It is a normal response to stress," she said. "Let it in when it shows up. Practise acceptance rather than trying to push it away (which tends to be futile, resulting in feeling more overwhelmed and less in control), make room for anxiety. It is showing up to try to bring your attention to something."
2. Try Talking
Even if you don't feel comfortable sharing your worries with your manager just yet, talking to a trusted colleague or friend within your workplace can help create a support network. And once you've spoken to one person, it may make you feel less fearful about confiding in your manager. Mamo explained to Bustle: "Staying silent is one of the worst things people can do and opening up about how [you're] feeling can in turn help [you] feel more relaxed about chatting to [your] manager."
3. Seek Support
If you have a good relationship with your manager, and feel ready to talk, it's worth setting up a chat with them to share your experiences. Mamo advised Bustle that a private meeting is usually best, "[You] could meet them on a one-to-one basis. Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance, but might be useful if previous meetings haven’t been fruitful."
4. Prepare For Stressful Situations
Part of accepting your social anxiety can be identifying some of the things that make you feel the most stressed. Thinking about your workplace triggers, whether it's meetings, phone calls, or meeting new people, can help you plan to fight your fears next time. For example, psychologist Kyle MacDonald explained in his blog how to prepare for phone calls if you find them particularly stressful. He wrote: "Make careful notes about what you want to talk about. Prepare for the potential for having to leave a phone message or arrange a more appropriate time to call, and practise making phone calls at home, starting with simple calls to businesses to ask straightforward questions and moving on to more complex issues."
5. Take A Break And Breathe
If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed at work, try taking a short break and taking a few, deep calm breaths. Even if you're in the middle of an important meeting or you see your manager making a beeline for you and can't exactly dash out of the door, practicing calming breathing will help you feel more in control. Psychologist Barbara Markway explained the benefits of slow, deep breathing in Psychology Today: "One of the worst things about anxiety is the feeling that once it starts, it will build uncontrollably. Breathing slowly and deeply from your abdomen eases anxiety. Whenever you start feeling anxious, be aware of your breathing. If it is shallow and rapid, consciously shift to slow abdominal breathing."
6. Try To Challenge Yourself
According to mental health charity Mind, "social relationships are critical for promoting wellbeing and for acting as a buffer against mental ill health for people of all ages." One of the worst things about social anxiety is that it can rob you of the chance to make connections, which can leave you feeling isolated at work. While even small interactions with your colleagues might fill you with dread, the charity suggests small, practical ways to get started, like talking to someone instead of sending an email or putting five minutes aside to find out how someone really is. A recent New York University study found that exposure to triggers of a fear helped reduce that fear. So maybe all those motivational posts on Instagram were right after all, you just have to feel the fear and do it anyway. Just think of practicing small-scale workplace interactions, and trying to work through the anxiety they might cause as step one.
7. Get Help From A Professional
If your social anxiety is making doing your job impossible then it's probably time to seek out a support group or talk to a professional. Both the Anxiety UK and Mind charity websites have information about different types of counselling, as well as resources to help manage mental health conditions.
So take a few deep breaths and remember, you're not alone in feeling anxious, your boss might be more receptive to a chat than you'd think, and that not letting your fear rule you is the way forward. Time to send social anxiety packing. You can do this!