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Social anxiety, also known as social phobia, is an intense and persistent fear of being judged, embarrassed, or humiliated in social situations.
People with social anxiety often experience extreme self-consciousness and worry about being scrutinized by others, leading to avoidance of social interactions and significant distress in their daily lives.
Those experiencing social anxiety may have poor social skills and thus may face isolation or feelings of loneliness. They are also more likely to be victims of bullying (Ranta et al., 2009) and have fewer friends than those without social anxiety (Whisman et al., 2000).
They may also have problems with academic and employment achievement, such as avoiding school or work or feeling too afraid to ask for help or attend a job interview for a position they want, for fear of being judged in the interview.
People experiencing social anxiety are at a greater risk of leaving school early with poorer qualifications (Ranta et al., 2009), tend to report more days absent from work, and have poorer work performance (Stein et al., 1999).
Individuals with social anxiety may also have low self-esteem, think negatively about themselves, or have generally lower mood and well-being compared to those without social anxiety (Mineka et al., 1998).
In this way, social anxiety can impact most parts of an individual’s life and have devastating effects if left unmanaged. It is, therefore, important to consider ways to overcome social anxiety.
Is it Possible to Overcome Social Anxiety?
It is possible for individuals to significantly reduce the impact of social anxiety through therapy, self-help strategies, and support, leading to improved quality of life and the ability to manage social situations more effectively.
The strategies discussed in this article may be helpful for some individuals, but social anxiety affects people differently. It is important to consult with a mental health professional for personalized advice if you are negatively impacted by social anxiety.
Below are some of the strategies to overcoming social anxiety:
It is extremely difficult to overcome anxiety if social situations are avoided. Breaking this vicious cycle of anxiety is necessary.
This can be done by approaching situations that make you anxious. At first, this will feel uncomfortable, and it may temporarily elevate anxiety. In the long term, it will provide more opportunities to test fears and build confidence in coping skills.
An example of a way to break this cycle could be to start initiating small talk at work gradually if this is something that was avoided before.
Another social challenge can include remaining at a social event for one hour before leaving. When one hour is reached, perhaps at the next social event, you challenge yourself to stay for 2 hours.
After the social situation is over, reflect on what happened – were the negative beliefs about the situation accurate? Did something go wrong? What went well? You could also rate your anxiety before and after the situation and how you feel about completing the social situation again.
Starting slow, gradually pushing yourself rather than pushing too much at once can increase confidence in social situations and motivate you to continue until social situations no longer induce overwhelming anxiety.
Ryan shares his advice that has helped him to overcome his social anxiety, by not avoiding the feeling of fear:
‘all of this fear that you’re experiencing is false evidence of a situation that you’re building in your brain… if you just bypass that fear or don’t listen to that fear and you push yourself beyond that initial feeling of fear, most of the time what you’re going to find out is whatever you were fearful of, doesn’t actually happen.’
Drop Safety behaviors
Safety behaviors are more subtle than simply avoiding the situation. These are often behaviors that are used in situations that cannot be avoided as a way to cope, such as remaining quiet, wearing headphones, limiting eye contact, or using alcohol.
Safety behaviors can hinder you from truly testing your fears and can come with undesired outcomes, so consider dropping these behaviors to overcome social anxiety.
When dropping safety behaviors, you may feel more anxious in the short term. But, as with avoidance behaviors, the more you push yourself, the more comfortable in the long-term you should be, and the better able to cope with social situations.
The most efficient approach would be to stop the behaviors as soon as they are noticed in the social situation. If this is too difficult, the behaviors could be stopped more gradually.
You could also ‘gather evidence’ which disproves negative beliefs, such as noticing that nothing bad happens when you speak in a louder tone or when the attention is on you.
You could also set challenges for yourself before a social situation. For example, if giving a presentation, instead of using the safety behavior of no eye contact, you could challenge yourself to make eye contact with at least five people until that feels more comfortable.
Deal with Setbacks
It is important to remember that it is normal to expect some setbacks. For instance, you may find yourself experiencing a difficult social situation where someone actually gives judgment or criticizes you (a common fear for people who have social anxiety).
Likewise, life circumstances can unexpectedly change, and individuals may not be as exposed to social situations as much as they were.
For example, the COVID-19 outbreak resulted in many people being isolated from social situations for extended periods.
Individuals with social anxiety may find it extremely challenging to get back on track after these setbacks. It is important to not focus too much on the setbacks and instead focus on what can be done to get back on track.
It may be useful for individuals with social anxiety to create their own personalized action plans to deal with setbacks to prevent small setbacks from turning into larger ones.
This action plan could include documenting the triggers that may cause a setback and include the warning signs (emotional, thinking, behavioral, or physical signs) which may indicate a setback could occur.
Include details in the action plan of what needs to be done when a setback occurs or who to contact if further help is needed.
It is easy to criticize yourself when you get anxious in social situations.
Remember that everyone, including those without social anxiety, makes mistakes and experiences awkward moments in social interactions.
To manage social anxiety, it’s essential to reframe negative self-talk and focus on your strengths and achievements. Acknowledge your progress, no matter how small, and give yourself credit for each step you take towards overcoming social anxiety.
Practicing self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a close friend facing similar challenges.
Replace self-judgment with self-acceptance, recognizing that it’s natural to feel anxious in certain social situations.
Additionally, cultivating self-awareness can help manage social anxiety. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions, and notice when self-critical thinking patterns arise.
Once identified, consciously challenge and reframe those thoughts by focusing on more realistic and positive perspectives.
Samantha, who describes her experience with social anxiety explains how she challenges negative self-talk:
‘You have to notice when that negative self-talk comes up and then you have to think, is that really what I think about myself or is that just an old belief that I have?’
Engaging in self-care activities is also important. Take time for relaxation, engage in hobbies you enjoy, and prioritize your overall well-being. Taking care of your physical and mental health can contribute to reducing anxiety levels.
For many people with social anxiety, breathing may be more anxious and disordered. Unbalanced breathing can result in feelings of dizziness, headaches, weakness, and muscle stiffness.
Anxious breathing can also make people more likely to respond to stressful situations with intense anxiety or panic. Breathing retraining is a technique that can be learned to return to a baseline breathing pattern.
This is a simple technique of breathing in deeply, holding the breath for a few seconds, then slowly releasing the breath.
This technique can be practiced twice a day to be effective and can be used as a coping strategy in anxious social situations rather than turning to unhelpful safety behaviors.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
A common response to fear and anxiety is muscle tension, which can cause discomfort and, thus, even more anxiety. Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can be used when in a comfortable position, usually lying down.
When comfortable, purposely tense a muscle group (e.g., the feet or hands). Tense this muscle group for a few seconds before releasing the tension.
After this, you can tense another muscle group and repeat each muscle group’s tensing and releasing technique until everything has been tensed and released.
You may find it useful to start at the bottom of the body (at the feet) and work up through the body to the head. This progressive muscle relaxation aims to instantly relax each muscle group until the whole body feels relaxed.
This can be useful for those with social anxiety and could be used before a fearful social situation or afterward to help recover.
Celebrate Small Victories
This involves recognizing and appreciating the progress you make, no matter how seemingly insignificant it may appear.
Overcoming social anxiety is a gradual process that requires time and effort, so it’s important to be patient and give yourself credit for each step forward.
When dealing with social anxiety, it’s common to focus on perceived failures or moments of discomfort. However, by shifting your perspective and acknowledging even the smallest achievements, you can cultivate a positive mindset and boost your self-confidence.
One way to celebrate small victories is by setting realistic goals and breaking them down into manageable steps.
For example, if you managed to accept an invite to a party and then attend for a short period of time (when you would usually avoid it completely), this is a great accomplishment!
Another helpful approach is to keep a progress journal. Write down instances where you faced social anxiety and managed to navigate through it. Reflecting on these experiences and recognizing your growth can reinforce positive behavior and motivate further progress.
Additionally, seek support from trusted friends or family members who can celebrate your victories with you. Sharing your achievements with others can create a sense of accountability and provide encouragement along the way.
Remember, overcoming social anxiety is not about making giant leaps forward overnight. It’s about taking small, consistent steps and recognizing that each step is a triumph.
By celebrating these victories, you reinforce positive change, build resilience, and gradually overcome the challenges posed by social anxiety.
Build a Support Network
Building a support network can be a valuable tool for managing social anxiety. By surrounding yourself with supportive and understanding individuals, you create a safe and non-judgmental space to share your struggles.
Joining support groups or social clubs specifically designed for individuals with social anxiety can offer a unique opportunity to connect with others who can relate to your experiences.
Within a support network, you can find encouragement, empathy, and validation. Sharing your anxieties and challenges with like-minded individuals can help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness as you realize you are not alone in your struggles.
Hearing others’ stories and coping strategies can provide insights and inspiration for your own journey.
Supportive individuals can also offer practical advice and techniques for managing social anxiety. Learning from others who have faced similar challenges can provide a sense of hope and motivation.
In addition, a support network can provide opportunities for gradual exposure to social situations. By engaging in group activities or attending social events together, you can practice social skills in a supportive environment.
While some of the self-help methods above may be useful for many people, if the social anxiety is debilitating and negatively affecting aspects of your life, then psychotherapy should be considered.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is often recommended in the treatment of social anxiety disorder.
One common type of psychotherapy used to treat social anxiety disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In CBT, the goal is to identify and challenge negative thoughts and beliefs about social situations with the therapist. Coping strategies to manage anxiety when it arises in social situations can also be taught.
Another type of psychotherapy that can be helpful for social anxiety is exposure therapy, which involves gradual and safe exposure to feared social situations with a therapist while learning coping strategies to manage anxious feelings.
Other psychotherapeutic approaches, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness-based interventions, may also be effective in managing social anxiety by promoting acceptance of anxious thoughts and feelings and developing coping skills to manage them.
Ultimately, the best type of psychotherapy for social anxiety will depend on individual factors and preferences, and a mental health professional can provide guidance on the most appropriate approach.
Medications can also be used to manage social anxiety if self-help methods are not succeeding. However, medication may not always be recommended as the first course of action.
Discussing medication and its side effects with a medical professional is important to ensure you are making the right choice for you.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine and sertraline, are commonly prescribed antidepressants that can be effective in reducing social anxiety symptoms by affecting the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain.
Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam and clonazepam, are fast-acting medications that can also be used to treat social anxiety, but they are generally reserved for short-term use due to the risk of dependence and withdrawal.
Beta-blockers, such as propranolol, can be used to reduce physical symptoms of anxiety, such as sweating and tremors, but they do not reduce the psychological symptoms of anxiety.
Consider what suits you
Another way to manage social anxiety is to consider what your limits are and where your limits are.
There is often a pressure in society that being outgoing and having a big group of friends is favorable, however, this does not have to be what everyone should strive for.
It is perfectly fine to have a few, close friends with deep connections, rather than many friends which may be more superficial.
‘What do you actually need in terms of connection?… Do you really want to be always in a group of ten people? Or maybe this is a scenario where you are always going to feel slightly uncomfortable. That’s not the kind of contact you need.’Angela Dierks, therapist
Frequently Asked Questions
How can I make friends if I have social anxiety disorder?
Making friends can be challenging for individuals with social anxiety disorder, but there are strategies that can be helpful.
One approach is to start small and gradually build social connections by engaging in low-pressure social activities, such as joining a club or group related to a personal interest or hobby.
Another strategy is to practice social skills and build confidence by volunteering or taking a class where you can interact with others in a structured environment.
It can also be helpful to seek support from a mental health professional who can provide guidance and support in managing social anxiety symptoms and building social connections.
Remember that making friends takes time and effort, but with patience and perseverance, it is possible to develop meaningful relationships.
What should you NOT say to someone who has social anxiety?
When speaking with someone who has social anxiety, it’s important to avoid saying things that may increase their anxiety or make them feel uncomfortable.
Saying things such as “just relax” or “calm down” minimizes their feelings or experiences or pushes them to participate in social situations they’re not comfortable with.
Likewise, avoid drawing attention to the fact that they are quiet or showing physical symptoms of anxiety, as this can cause discomfort and make their symptoms worse.
It’s also important to avoid making assumptions about their experiences or suggesting that they should be able to handle social situations better. Instead, it’s helpful to listen to their concerns, offer support and understanding, and encourage them to seek professional help if needed.
What can happen if social anxiety is left unmanaged?
If social anxiety is left unmanaged, it can significantly impact various aspects of a person’s life.
They may experience persistent feelings of isolation, avoidance of social situations, and difficulty forming or maintaining relationships.
The individual may miss out on opportunities for personal and professional growth, leading to reduced self-esteem and quality of life.
Over time, untreated social anxiety can contribute to the development of other mental health issues, such as depression and substance abuse, further exacerbating the negative impact on overall well-being.
Is it possible to overcome social anxiety completely?
While it is possible for many individuals to significantly reduce the impact of social anxiety and lead fulfilling lives, completely overcoming social anxiety to the point of it never resurfacing again is less common.
It’s important to note that some level of anxiety is normal and a part of being human, so it is not realistic to try to get rid of all anxiety.
However, with appropriate treatment, therapy, and ongoing self-care, individuals can learn effective coping strategies, build confidence, and manage social anxiety to a level where it no longer significantly hinders their daily functioning and quality of life.
Dierks, A., & MacKay, T. (Hosts). (2023, June 5). Social Anxiety And How To Stop Avoiding It [Audio podcast episode]. In The Relationship Maze.
Maria, S. (2021, February 5). HOW I’M HEALING MY SOCIAL ANXIETY [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MhECQ3U4ZO0&ab_channel=SamanthaMaria
Mineka, S., Watson, D., & Clark, L. A. (1998). Comorbidity of anxiety and unipolar mood disorders. Annual review of psychology, 49(1), 377-412.
Ranta, K., Kaltiala‐Heino, R., Rantanen, P., & Marttunen, M. (2009). Social phobia in Finnish general adolescent population: prevalence, comorbidity, individual and family correlates, and service use. Depression and anxiety, 26(6), 528-536.
Scribner, R. (2020, November 9). How I overcame social anxiety [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkGEKA25jCc&ab_channel=RyanScribner
Stein, M. B., McQuaid, J. R., Laffaye, C., & McCahill, M. E. (1999). Social phobia in the primary care medical setting. Journal of Family Practice, 48, 514-519.
Whisman, M. A., Sheldon, C. T., & Goering, P. (2000). Psychiatric disorders and dissatisfaction with social relationships: Does type of relationship matter?. Journal of abnormal psychology, 109(4), 803.