What are some practical ways to manage social anxiety?

3 min read

Jason Brien.

The goal is not to completely eliminate social anxiety: The goal is to return atypical social anxiety back to its typical form. I have discussed the differences between typical and atypical mental health states in several of my previous posts/articles. Social anxiety is typical when we meet a new group of people for the first time and our heart begins pounding. It is typical when it’s our first day at a new workplace and it’s time for a lunch break and we are worried about saying something silly. Social anxiety is typical when the accompanied symptoms are minor and the feelings of concern and worry quickly dissipate as we become acclimatised to our new setting. Atypical social anxiety is accompanied by intense and frequent symptoms (rapid heart rate, sweating, etc) and irrational and overwhelming feelings of fear or impending doom which persist long after the social interaction has concluded.

Remember that your mental state differs from most of the people around you: When we are socially anxious, we are hypervigilant (we pay much more attention to what goes on around us) and we have an additional tendency to continuously and repetitively recall and replay social interactions in our minds (thus picking up extra details or potentially altering our memories and perceptions of what actually occurred). For the people who are not hypervigilant and who do not go home and replay social interactions over and over in their minds, you are just a tiny blip on their radar. Your social anxiety attributes much more power to these people than they really have. You worry that they will perceive you in a certain way. Or that they will judge you and notice your flaws. In reality, others notice you and very quickly forget about you. They are not thinking about you. They are thinking about work, family, food, movies, etc, etc. This brings us to the next point.

Identify and challenge your cognitive distortions and negative thinking: Social anxiety can cause us to misinterpret other people’s actions, thoughts, etc and it can also cause us to falsely attribute thoughts, feelings or behaviours onto others. Two common cognitive distortions related to social anxiety are; Mindreading: You assume that you know what other people are thinking about you ("Everyone can see how anxious I am"). Personalizing: You assume that the behaviours of others are related to you ("He looks bored, I shouldn’t have invited him to this movie."). You can identify and challenge cognitive distortions through journaling, mindfulness or cognitive restructuring.

When out and about, listen to music or podcasts through headphones: If you are just out and about walking or exercising, and your social anxiety is causing you stress and distress, try listening to music or podcasts through headphones. Listening to music or podcasts will help to keep your mind between your ears. Social anxiety causes our mind to filter out beyond our skulls and into the minds of those around us thus causing the two cognitive distortions mentioned previously. Listening to music or podcasts through headphones can help to reduce your hypervigilance. When your attention is fully absorbed by a good song or podcast, you will notice less around you and thus you will have less to recall and replay later.

Monitor your non-verbal cues: We are often ignorant of the non-verbal cues we communicate to the outside world. Our non-verbal cues can relay a lot of information to other people. If we are feeling anxious, and we are also hugging ourselves, peering around the room back and forth, back and forth, and getting up every 5 minutes to pace around, we are going to draw more attention to ourselves. We are giving people a reason to pay more attention to what we are doing because our behaviour will appear ‘atypical’ compared to everyone else around us. This is where emotional regulation comes into play. The ability to manage our social anxiety with deep breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation can help us to control the non-verbal cues we communicate to others.

Address the elephant in the room: Addressing your social anxiety can be a great icebreaker. This doesn’t involve dumping all of your concerns and challenges onto whoever you first meet, it’s just a simple acknowledgement to people that you have social anxiety and that you may appear awkward or uncomfortable at times. Most people will be understanding, caring and nurturing. By addressing the elephant in the room, you are also alerting people to be mindful of their own behaviours, thoughts, etc. Chances are you won’t be the only socially anxious person in the room. This is also a great time to practice new communication/social skills. If the new skills don’t play out the way that you anticipated, then you have already prewarned people so there is no need to worry so much about having made a ‘fool’ of yourself.

Be the first to arrive at social events: Arriving first gives you a distinct advantage compared to coming in late. When you arrive late, everybody has already ‘buddied up’ so to speak. By arriving first, people will naturally gravitate towards you as they are likely feeling anxious too and they also know that ignoring you in this context is a big social ‘no, no’. When you arrive late, it is easier for people to ignore you as they will likely view the situation as “well I’m busy talking. That person over there is not busy. They should go over and talk to them”. The first person you meet, unless they know other people attending the event, is likely to be the person who will sit with you. This is great because it allows you to avoid the whole “the chairs on either side of me are empty. I am such a loser” thing. Coming in late can also avoid this but by coming in late you are the ‘intruder’ and the person next to you has no real obligation to speak to you.

Learn more about your social anxiety: Not just learning more about the symptoms of social anxiety but learning more about how your social anxiety differs across situations. What is your social anxiety limit? Is your social anxiety manageable in a one-on-one setting? What about with two people? Three people? How many people does it take before your social anxiety becomes unmanageable? Is your social anxiety worse when you’re amongst a certain group of people (old v young, opposite sexes) or attending certain events (formal v informal)? Does your social anxiety effect you in the same way when you are interacting with people online? If you can identify social interactions where your anxiety is manageable, then it gives you a good starting point to learn new skills and techniques before branching out to more ‘complex’ situations. This leads to the next point.

Exposure over avoidance: Avoiding social situations will only make matters worse. Exposure can occur in several ways. First, exposure can involve the imagination. This technique is self-explanatory – you imagine yourself interacting within a variety of social interactions. Second, exposure can include role playing. Role playing social interactions with family, friends or professionals can really help you to gain practice and confidence. Third, exposure can occur online. Some people are more confident in online social groups than they ever could be face-to-face. This is a great way to practice new social skills and when you become confident, you can then try them out in the real world. Fourth, exposure can occur through online multiplayer games. Online multiplayer games can be a great way to practice social interactions with a range of different people around the world. As with any social interaction, be wary of negative and toxic interactions.  

Don’t chase perfection: Like I stated from the start. The goal is not to completely eliminate social anxiety. The goal is to return it back to its typical state. The goal is for you to be able to function at a level which does not cause you significant stress and distress. There is nothing wrong with being that quirky person who suffers from foot in mouth syndrome or who makes the occasional social faux pas. Our imperfections and flaws are a natural part of who we are and they stand alongside as equal partners to our strengths and positives. It is harder to accept ourselves and have healthy self-esteem when we are overly concerned with how we appear to others.