Social anxiety is the third most common psychological disorder, after depression and alcoholism. Fully 13% of people meet criteria for diagnosable social anxiety disorder, and 90% of people say they are or were shy at some point in their life.
The good news? Social anxiety is changeable. Start with these six tips—test them out one at a time and see what sticks. And yes, these are drops in the bucket, but do them over and over and you’ll start to fill your bucket with bravery.
1. Play “Worry Mismatch”
Anticipating a worrisome social situation is almost always worse than the actual event. For example, after dreading the company holiday party for weeks, it may actually be a relief to walk through the door, and—surprise—find it not as horrifying as you anticipated. Your brain is wired to keep you safe from danger and rejection, but sometimes it can go overboard and jump to the worst-case scenario. So it’s important to learn that the alarm bells before a social situation are usually louder than is justified.
Try this experiment: The next time you reluctantly attend a party, have to speak in class or a meeting, or need to work up the courage to do something you usually avoid, contrast your expectations with the actual experience. Think of what you’re worried about (“No one will understand what I’m saying, and I’ll be humiliated”) and then afterward, ask yourself if that’s what actually happened (“One guy said ‘What?’ twice, but otherwise everyone seemed like they could hear me—plus it was loud, so I couldn’t hear perfectly, either.”)
Our brains are great at coming up with potential catastrophes (“Nobody will talk to me") but they seldom play out in reality (“I stood around by myself for a few minutes, but then that guy from HR struck up a conversation I actually enjoyed”). Simply realizing your alarm bells are set too loud may be a consolation the next time they go off.
2. Volunteer to host or play a role
If suffering through a big family wedding makes you want to hide under the buffet table, ask the person in charge how you can help things to run smoothly. Social awkwardness is often alleviated by having a defined role. Asking attendees to sign the guest book gives you a reason to circulate. Rounding up groups of people for photos gives you a sense of purpose.
Playing a role allows you to practice approaching people, practice having eyes on you, and practice making requests. This practice invariably builds confidence. When you’re ready—whether in a few hours or a few years—you can transition to the ultimate role: being yourself.
3. Push yourself (a little)
Both parts of this tip are important. For instance, if you’re a socially anxious student, you might push yourself by asking more questions in class. But start small: Push yourself a little by first asking the teaching assistant a question after class, then asking the professor a question after class, then asking a question in an informal exam review, then in a 10-person seminar, and finally in a large lecture hall. Inch into the water slowly.
4. Ask questions.
Many people feel awkward in social situations because they feel they have nothing to say. One helpful technique is to ask open-ended questions (“So how did you two meet?” or “I’ve been thinking of taking that course. How do you like that professor?”) or ask advice (“I’ve got a few vacation days to burn; I need a good weekend getaway,” or “I just abandoned a terrible book and I need another one. Any suggestions?”)
Then, based on the answer, ask another question that takes the conversation deeper. Many people are delighted to talk about their lives and experiences and will thank you for the opportunity.
5. Keep showing up
Despite what you see on Facebook, the average American only has two true friends and almost one in four find themselves without a defined social circle at all. If you’re starting from scratch, have hope and take heart knowing you’re not, well, alone.
Wondering where to start? Think about what you like to do. If you’re stumped, think about what you liked to do as a kid. Then, based on your answers, plug yourself into a small, recurring group with the same people—not a one-shot event or huge city festival.
Did you love to draw? Take a semester-long art class. Run? Join a community running club and attend the Tuesday evening runs religiously. Read about dinosaurs? Volunteer at a local museum, preferably on a shift with the same co-volunteers. The most important thing is to keep showing up. Commit for at least a season, even if you’re tempted to throw in the towel earlier.
6. Do the strong thing and seek help
If you’re ready for a change, a good cognitive-behavioral therapist can help you face your fears slowly and safely. He or she will ask you to construct a hierarchy of things you avoid, from the easiest to the break-a-sweat hardest. Next, you’ll work through them gradually, only moving on to the next level when you’re ready.
Social anxiety gets in the way of living your life, but with time, practice, and a willingness to push yourself, you can achieve the ultimate goal: being comfortable in your own skin.
A version of this piece originally appeared on Quick and Dirty Tips.
Disclaimer: All content is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute for mental health care from a licensed professional.