Social Anxiety? 10 Tips to Help You Speak Up

Social anxiety is real & can be debilitating: How to manage.

Posted Jan 31, 2020

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Get into a group bigger than one and you get butterflies in your stomach. Staff meetings at work are torture; you know you need to participate but most times you choke. And parties, especially where you know only a couple of people are the worst: 10 minutes in you're ready to leave or are scanning the bookshelves for something to read.

You're not alone. Social anxiety affects an estimated 15 million Americans and can be debilitating — impacting careers, friendships, and everyday emotional support. Here are some tips to help you better navigate the social world:

1. For formal situations: Plan and prepare what you want to say

Know you want to get your point heard at that big staff meeting coming up? Plan and prepare for it. While the gold standard seems to be able to make eloquent spontaneous comments, it's fine to know what you want to say in advance. So do. Write out your speech, however long or short, and practice it ahead of time. Have notes in front of you in case you worry you will stumble. (Having them with you will psychologically provide some emotional security helping you not stumble.)

2. For casual situations: Prepare

That party coming up? Like the staff meeting, be prepared. Map out a couple of antidotes and stories that you feel comfortable sharing. Even if you worry that your story may seem out of place, do what the political candidates do — spin: Don't know what to say on a particular topic, spin it back to what you do know — your question about the economy brings me back to climate change; your comment reminds me of the time I ....

3. Tell others that you are anxious

Yes, this seems counter-intuitive, but by saying you are anxious - I don't know about you, but I always feel awkward at parties like this where I don't know anyone — you don't have to work so hard trying to cover up your anxiety, which in turn relieves the pressure you feel to do everything right... and others are likely to be sympathetic.

4. Ask detailed questions

Your default should be to go offense rather than defense. In casual situations, this means asking questions — not broad, bland questions — what your job? — but detailed ones - Oh, you're an engineer: What do you actually do day-to-day on your job? You said you moved around a lot — out of all the places you lived, what was your favorite?

Asking detailed questions not only takes the pressure off of you and places it on the other person, it shows interest and builds rapport. And frankly, most folks generally like the opportunity to talk about themselves with an interested listener.

5. Take breaks to recenter

And if you start to feel overwhelmed or socially spent, it's okay to head off to the bathroom and or outside to calm yourself down and get recentered. A few minutes of deep breathing can work wonders.

6. Pat yourself on back

Do this before — for going — while you're there and doing a good job — and after for pushing against your anxiety. This is about pushing away that critical voice that looks over your shoulder and tells you all the things you could have done better. 

7. Consider taking medication

No, drinking a quart of bourbon or getting stoned before the party may not be the best idea, but there are prescription meds and plenty of over-the-counter supplements that can help you take the edge off your anxiety, help break the anxiety cycle, and can make a big difference. Talk to your doc; do some research. Your anxiety isn't about your personality, it's about your brain.

8. Consider therapy, read self-help books

Even short-term therapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy, can teach you the skills you need to rewire your brain, help you move forward in spite of, and, by then taking successful risks, increase your confidence. There are plenty of work-book type books, audiobooks that can walk through the skills you need to know.

9. Don't listen to your anxiety

Most importantly, don't listen to your anxiety — don't call in sick for the staff meeting or party. The problem with listening to what your anxious mind is telling you is that it works: If you skip the staff meeting or the party you will feel less anxious, but this is only feeding the dragon and will make those anxious circuits in your brain stronger. The antidote to any anxiety is to run towards it, not away from it. This will over time expand your comfort zone.

10. Take baby steps

Decide to go to the party and tell yourself you will stay for a half-hour and then see how you feel. Think of this less as some command performance and more about as an experiment is expanding your social world. Baby steps like these are fine — it's about learning to override your emotions by moving forward. With practice, it will become easier.

Step forward, speak up in spite of. You can't make a mistake.