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18 Strategies to Ease Social Anxiety

Practical tools to help overcome social phobia.

Key points

  • If you struggle with social anxiety, there is hope.
  • Regularly practicing your favorite tools helps keep them at the forefront of your mind when you need them.
  • You can learn to speak to yourself like you'd speak to a child or a dear friend.
Alexandra Gorn/Pexels
Alexandra Gorn/Pexels

Many people experience some level of pre-social apprehension, but for some, the idea of a social gathering, presentation, or romantic date brings up dread and panic.

If you’re someone who becomes terrified by the mere thought of going out of your social comfort zone, consider trying one or more of these tools.

Out of the Mind, Into the Body

Tuning into our breathing and our senses provides easily accessible alternatives to the anxious mind movie channel. You can slow down or deepen your breaths; notice any shapes or colors you see; tune into the sounds you hear or the surface beneath you. As simple as it may sound, dropping down from the mind and into our bodies can have an immediately grounding and calming effect.

Focus on Facts, Not Thoughts

Notice the difference between thoughts and facts in the following scenario.

Thought: They just looked over at me and now they’re laughing. I bet they’re talking about me.

Fact: There are two people laughing in the corner of the room. I have no idea what they’re laughing about.

When we let our anxious thoughts run wild, we feel the corresponding stress chemicals inside our bodies. Shifting to concrete facts is a great way to tame and redirect our busy minds.

Self-Soothing Statements

Come up with a comforting phrase to repeat. Here are some ideas:

It’s okay if I feel uncomfortable, all feelings pass.

This is practice. I get better at what I practice.

I don’t have to be perfect, nobody is.

Self-Soothing Actions

Imagine that a friend felt the exact same way that you do about socializing. What might you say to them or think about them?

Imagine that one of your hands represents your compassionate heart and the other hand represents anxiety. Then clasp your hands together and feel one hand offering comfort to the other.

Compassionate Self-Parenting

Think of the anxious part of yourself as a young child, and try speaking to the anxiety like you’d speak to a child you care about.

Ask yourself if it’s anxiety and self-criticism that are causing you to not want to go to a social event or if it’s really not a match for you. If the event or activity is something you want to try, you can treat yourself like a loving parent might treat their anxious child. Offer yourself empathy for how challenging it is and gently encourage yourself to give it a try.

Time-Limited Try

If there’s an event or activity you're considering attending, encourage yourself to try it for a short time and reassure yourself that you can leave if you truly want to.

Buddy Up

If possible, it can help to bring a supportive friend or relative to an event. This will give you someone to talk to, as well as help you feel supported while you connect with others. If it’s a pet-friendly environment and you have a pet, that can also be supportive, as well as a great conversation starter.

Find a Focus

Find a goal or task to get you into the moment. For example, if it’s a dinner party, you can offer to help set the table or do the dishes. Look around and see if there's anyone you might be interested in talking to. If someone else is alone, consider connecting with them. They might be feeling just like you.

Learn From a Positive Past

If you have any memories of going to something social and it turned out better than you feared, you can remind yourself about that. An anxious mind tends to spin on worst-case possibilities, so it helps to counteract the negatives with some positive recollections.

Reality Check Your Past

Think back to how many instances something challenging actually happened vs. how many moments you’ve worried about something hard happening and it never did.

Thank your mind for trying to help you, but let it know that most of the time it’s overworking and inaccurate and actually causing anxiety.

Upgrade Anxious What-Ifs

Anxiety is often made of “what-if” worst-case scenarios. How about thinking of some potentially positive what-ifs? What if I talk to a few nice people at the party? What if I end up having a good time? What if this presentation goes okay and helps me feel less anxious for the next one?

Upgrade Outdated Beliefs

Write down any stressful thoughts that you’d like to be free of. Then cross out each one and write a new, updated belief. See if you can find any evidence to support your updated thoughts. You can also record your new thoughts on your smart phone and listen to them regularly to help them sink in.

Time Travel

Think back to the first time you remember feeling socially anxious. Then, in writing, imagination, or with a safe supportive person, tell that younger version of you exactly what you think they needed to hear.

While we can’t actually turn back the clock, we can upgrade our painful beliefs from the past which frees us up in the present.

Scan for Safety

It’s human to scan for potentially unsafe things in our environment, but you can also look around and see what might seem safe. It could be a cozy couch with a person sitting alone. It could be a room with nice artwork to look at. It could be a patio with fresh air.

Anxious thoughts lead us to believe that we’re unsafe, but it’s usually our thoughts that are causing us to feel unsafe. You can challenge the mind’s negativity bias by noticing that you are actually safe.

Practice Makes Progress

Remind yourself that we get better at what we practice and try to view any social event you go to as practice.

Conversation Preparation

Prepare a few topics or stories ahead of time that might make for conversation. Perhaps a comedy you’ve seen or an interesting documentary. You can also ask other people starter or follow-up questions if they share something with you.

It can also help to prepare a short statement to describe what you’ve been up to or how you might respond to someone asking about you. Here are a few examples:

“I’ve been taking a few classes and taking more walks in nature. What about you?”

“I’ve been doing some reading and working on getting clear about my next move. I’m not sure if I’m going to go back to school or stay at my job.”

“I’ve been doing some job hunting and also listening to an interesting podcast.”

Let Your Imagination Lead

Before attending a social event, you can practice visualizing yourself feeling comfortable at the actual event. You can do this anytime, but right before sleep and first thing in the morning are especially powerful times to plant new seeds into our subconscious minds.

Try on Your Desired State

Ask yourself, If I felt comfortable or confident, what would that feel like? (Even if you don’t feel it yet!) See how your posture might be or how you’d feel inside if you felt comfortable or confident. You can try it on, even for a minute.

In my children’s book I have a chapter called Strong as a Tree or Wiggly as a Weed. I ask readers to imagine or sense what it might feel like to be as strong, sturdy, and grounded as a tree, as opposed to a weed that blows around in the wind. Nature can provide great role modeling.

It’s so important and empowering to remember that we’re not anxious about an event because of the event. We get anxious because of our thoughts about the event. Fortunately, we can change our stressful thoughts, the same way we change the TV station if a show comes on that we don’t like. We can upgrade our repetitive, anxiety-producing internal programs to ones that are kinder and more helpful. With practice, we can learn to befriend ourselves so that wherever we are, we're in good company.

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