Social anxiety was becoming a familiar companion for me after I lost my main structured social outlet several months ago, but I’ve been learning to navigate it, so I thought I’d share some strategies that can help.
“Sticking points” for people with social anxiety can typically be divided into three categories: Before, during and after [the social event].
You might find that you struggle with one more than others, which is normal.
Below, I’ve included a couple of cognitive strategies to help you work through anxieties associated with social situations. I find it helpful to write these things down when going through the skills to really cement them in my mind before and after an outing.
1. Choose appropriate exposures
If you’re going to make the most out of pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone, consider whether the situation is worthwhile, realistic, and safe. (See these general tips for constructing an exposure hierarchy)
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A) What is something that your social anxiety prevents you from participating in that wish you could?
Personally, I am introverted and I really value quiet moments with a few close friends. I wouldn’t necessarily prioritize going out dancing every weekend nor do I feel I need to currently focus much on professional communication or networking for example.
B) What is feasible for you currently?
This allows you to break down your goals into smaller, achievable steps. If for example, I want to have my friends over for a games night but I know I struggle even to meet up with anyone of them right now, I might start by setting a goal to FaceTiming once a week. If I’m successful, I could then maybe move to plan some short coffee dates here and there.
C) Is it safe?
Safety closely depends on the previous two criteria: reflecting your personal situation, your values, and the situation itself. Some circumstances may never be inherently safe and therefore not worth pursuing. Others might vary more closely with your degree of comfort.
A few questions to ask yourself before you decide how to go about an exposure might include:
- Are you at risk of being upset or triggered?
- Do you know how to take care of yourself in potentially upsetting times?
- Do you have an escape plan if necessary? Who can you call if you need an out?
- Is there somewhere safe you can retreat to if you become too overwhelmed?
- Is there someone you can confide in?
- Do you need to plan a time to leave or ensure flexibility in your schedule? Do you prefer to work on a structured schedule?
2. Challenge Restrictive Thinking
Evaluate the “Best, Worst, and Most-Realistic” Scenarios
A) What are you worried about? What is the worst-case scenario?
This will likely be the easy part. It might come naturally to let your mind entertain all the worries you have about an upcoming engagement. Often, these worries are accompanied by a general feeling that something bad will happen. Putting them into words can help us gain a better perspective and offer insight on how to cope. Plus, the ridiculousness sometimes makes me laugh.
For example, let’s say you have a coffee date coming up, you might worry that you’ll be boring or that you’ll say something embarrassing. What’s the worst possible consequence of this? Maybe the person you’re with decides that you weren’t quite captivating enough to warrant a second date. Maybe you did something so awkward they tell all their friends about it.
B) What is the best-case scenario?
Since we considered the worst thing that could possibly happen, let’s also visit the best.
Continuing with our above coffee date example, you could end up being the most entertaining person they have ever met and you immediately hit it off and become best friends.
What else is possible? Your creativity is wasted if you only explore the worst possibilities.
C) What is most likely to happen?
Neither of the previous scenarios are likely to happen. Chances are things aren’t going to go extremely horribly nor are they going to go exceptionally well. The most likely outcome lies somewhere in the middle and after exploring the worst possibilities, it might not seem all that bad.
There will likely be awkward moments, but hey, that’s life! It happens to everyone and the nice thing to remember is that you’re probably not the only one responsible for the awkwardness. Those dead silences can happen no matter how big or chatty a group you’re in.
Life isn’t filled with seamless, witty chatter like the movies. People stumble over words, conversations rise and fall, and silence is expected.
Relieve yourself of some of the pressure of performing “perfectly” in these situations and realize that whoever you are with is are also there to contribute to the conversation as well.
You might say something awkward, sure, but so might they. Maybe you’ll share a laugh over it. At the end of the day, everyone does something uncomfortable at some point or another. It doesn’t mean you’re not worth getting to know or that you’re ineloquent; it just means you’re human.
More often than not, genuine connection is fostered in part by our shared human imperfections.
Simply having the courage to show up and be yourself is a quality that many people find comforting. Continuing to do so makes the next time a little less frightening. You’ll discover the people who genuinely like you for you and realize that you’ll be fine without those who don’t.
D) Explore all the other possibilities
An important part of breaking away from stringent anxiety-thinking is opening your mind to consider all the possibilities we tend to ignore when we’re worrying. Having already explored the best, worst, and most realistic scenarios it can also be helpful to generally try to stretch your mind to encompass possibilities you don’t usually think about.
Let’s imagine you do say something awkward, but no one notices. Or you say something awkward and laugh about it. You say something awkward and it serves as a new conversation starter. Someone else says something awkward too. You don’t say anything awkward. The coffee date is slightly awkward but you still think they’re a nice person and they think the same of you. You hit it off incredibly. You had a fine time but don’t really feel any genuine connection to the other person. Etc. Etc. (You get the idea).
3. Focus on listening
Sometimes when you’re nervous about a social event you can find yourself getting stuck in your head when you’re actually there. Judging what you’re saying (or not saying) and putting pressure on yourself by evaluating your performance in the situation only takes you further out of the moment.
If you notice your mind wandering it can be helpful to gently re-direct your attention to just listening to the conversation. Don’t put pressure on yourself to participate. Don’t judge your experience, just listen. Frequently purely listening will spark a few thoughts of your own that you might even get a chance to share.
4. Take a deep breath and release tension from your body
When we’re stressed our breathing can become shallow and make us feel more tense. No one will notice if you quietly take a couple deep, controlled breaths.
Notice where you might be holding tension. Relax your shoulders. Stretch ever so slightly. Managing this type of embodied feedback can relieve some stress in itself. You can even take a minute in the bathroom to decompress.
5. Ground yourself by noticing your surroundings
When you’re not listening to a speaker it can be helpful to take note of your physical experience to get yourself out of your head. One at a time (to prevent becoming overwhelmed) you can take a moment to hone in on the experience of things like what you might be eating, the music you’re listening to, the smells or sounds of the coffee shop you’re at, the colours of the cars buzzing by on the street etc.
6. Don’t leave while your social anxiety is still high
Exposures to stressful circumstances are a good way to un-learn the fear response you associate with them, but if you leave too early you can end up reinforcing the social anxiety.
Say your social anxiety is making you really anxious to go to a party. When you get there and start to mingle your social anxiety may very well be at its peak. Staying long enough to allow your stress to start to subside is crucial to show yourself that there is actually nothing to be fearful of.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit through the most uncomfortable part of the experience, but it is worth a try. Not fully giving yourself a chance to decompress can perpetuate a cycle of avoidance where you never really replace the negative experience with any more positive ones.
Importantly, the events and environments you expose yourself to should be safe and manageable. Don’t throw yourself in all at once; choose manageable exposures to make sitting through the discomfort possible and make sure to distinguish between truly harmful situations and those that are anxiety-inducing but still potentially beneficial.
7. Challenge distorted thinking
Is there something you are stuck ruminating over? Try a thought log. [Find a template here]
Even having done the cognitive prep, we can still find ourselves stuck worrying about something that might have happened during our exposure, and that’s okay. Now is an opportunity to challenge any cognitive distortions that leave us feeling insecure about our experience. [Remember the 16 different thinking errors]
For example, if you were with friends, chances are they genuinely wanted to catch-up and enjoy spending time with you. In most circumstances, it’s safe to assume that people chose to do what they want and they chose to be present with you (maybe excluding work-social obligations where not everyone loves the idea of being there). However, even in those circumstances, you have a shared motive for showing up and you can commiserate.
8. Go with your gut and evaluate the takeaway feeling
What was the general experience of the interaction? Do you remember exactly what everyone else said or did? No. Chances are they don’t remember your specifics either.
In fact, people have notoriously bad memories for specifics. We function on general takeaways. So the small things you might be worrying about (i.e. what exactly you said or how you said it) likely went unnoticed.
A reassuring thought might be that even if you did appear noticeably anxious, many people might get the feeling that you are incredibly sincere and endearing. It takes guts to fight through uncomfortable feelings and shows a dedication to showing up. Your friends should be honoured really!
Instead, people who aren’t socially anxious tend to leave a situation with a general feeling of how things went. So consider how you feel. Don’t dig too deep looking for faults, just think about the overall experience. Yes, you might have been anxious but was it also nice to catch up with your friends? Was it good to get out of the house? Did you do something interesting or enjoyable?
Most likely, if you felt like you had a generally good time, the other person probably did too. I know it sounds laughable, but there’s actually a lot to be said for the “vibes” you get from something like this. If something feels like it went okay, it probably did.
Remember that no one dissects social interactions except for others with social anxiety, and if they’re anxious, you can bet they’ll be focusing on themselves, not you.
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