- Social anxiety is one of the most common anxiety disorders.
- While your anxious brain tells you the only way to not feel anxious is to do things perfectly or not at all, it's important to take risks.
- It's OK to take baby steps, to take breaks to regroup, and to get support. The key is to practice stepping outside your comfort zone.
Mia is invited to a party where she doesn’t know anyone other than the host. She’s anxious about it, and an hour before she plans to leave, she calls up the host and says she’s not feeling well and will need to take a rain check.
Mia has social anxiety, and she’s not alone. Studies show that social anxiety affects 7 percent of the population, making it one of the most common forms of anxiety disorders1. If you struggle with this, here are some tips to help you break out:
Push back against your fear.
Your anxious brain tends to tell you to pull back: Don’t ask about a pay raise if you’re worried about upsetting your boss; don’t sign up for that course if you’re afraid you won’t do well; or, for Mia, don’t go to the party if you’re worried you’ll mess up. Anxiety tells you the only way not to be anxious is to do it perfectly or not at all. Anxiety also makes everything a priority—going to the party feels just as big as making a presentation to the company’s Board of Directors.
No wonder it’s easy to feel overwhelmed; no wonder Mia chokes about going to the party. But because she feels better when she stays home, it not only makes those anxiety circuits in her brain stronger, but her tolerance for anxiety goes down. Avoidance increasingly becomes her default, only making the problem worse.
The antidote is to push back against your anxiety and step out of your comfort zone. Doing this increases your anxiety tolerance, and you find out that what you think will happen usually doesn’t. Do this enough times, and you begin to find the world less frightening.
Keep your expectations low.
Rather than staying home, Mia can go to the party but tell herself she needs to only stay for 15 minutes. Or she’ll go for the first-date coffee rather than dinner. You’re looking for your window of success.
The coffee date may feel the same as the Board meeting, but Mia needs to get her rational brain back online and sort out priorities.
Obviously, this applies to the Board meeting but also to the party. Mia can tell herself ahead of time that if she starts to feel anxious, she can shift the conversation by asking the other person questions about themselves. Or she can have a few antidotes in her mental pocket, so she doesn’t have to mentally scramble in the heat of the moment. Having a plan in advance will give her a sense of control.
If Mia starts to get overwhelmed, she can retreat to the bathroom and recenter. She can take deep breaths to lower her anxiety and then decide what she wants to do next—leave or forge ahead.
Pat yourself on the back.
Mia decides to leave the party after a half hour. It’s time to pat herself on the back for taking the risk, for getting out, or for doing the coffee date regardless of how it turned out. The doing is more important than the outcome.
Experiment with different formats.
Mia gives herself gold stars for going to the party, but she realizes that she would do better in a smaller setting. So she invites a work colleague out for drinks as a way of getting to know her better or signs up for some Saturday meet-ups where the built-in activity and the common interests make it a better fit.
Here Mia goes to a meet-up with a friend, gets a pep talk from her brother before going to the party, or even checks out short-term therapy. Having the support and encouragement of others is never a bad idea.
Like other forms of anxiety, learning to manage your social anxiety is about taking acceptable risks and building your confidence by doing what seems difficult. You can set the pace and the challenge, and baby steps are always OK.