If you suffer from social anxiety, you are not alone. About 15 million American adults have social anxiety disorder. The overwhelming majority of people with social anxiety wait years before getting help. Like you, they have a fear of judgment by others in various social situations. That fear negatively affects your ability to foster friendships, cultivate romantic relationships and perform in school or in your job. That leaves you feeling discouraged, alone and ashamed. Many resort to avoiding situations that make them anxious altogether, while others turn to drugs or alcohol to ease their discomfort in these situations, which is a dangerous solution. Still others feel discomfort in social situations, but not to the point of anxiety.
The good news is we can help you learn how to overcome social anxiety without drugs. You can take steps on your own to overcome social anxiety and shyness. Regardless of how intense your social anxiety is, the beginning steps are the same.
Determine What You are Avoiding
Before you begin taking action to overcome your social anxiety, you need to pinpoint the situations that make you uncomfortable. Dedicate some time to thinking about situations you’ve been in, or have imagined, that have made you anxious. Is it making a presentation, walking into a room full of people you don’t know, using public restrooms or something else? Write as many of them as you can think of, as they’ll be the base for the steps you take to overcome.
If you’re struggling to come up with a list, you can create a thought diary to help. A thought diary is simply a record of situations you encounter that make you feel uncomfortable and anxious, along with some details. These details should include thoughts that ran through your head during the situation, as well as how you felt and any physical symptoms you may have encountered (a racing heart, for example).
A thought diary does a couple of things that help you overcome social anxiety. First, it makes you aware of your thoughts. This is key because often times your thoughts are what lead you to worry and become anxious. If you become more aware of what you’re thinking in each of the situations that make you uncomfortable, it will make some of the steps we discuss easier for you. Second, it gives you an awesome record of situations that bother you. These are going to serve as the basis of upcoming steps. Being aware of these situations and thoughts are key to overcoming social anxiety.
Rank the Situations
The list should be comprehensive, and should include things on both extremes of the scale ─ severe and less severe. While some of the situations you write down cause you severe anxiety, others may just cause you discomfort — that doesn’t mean the uncomfortable situations aren’t important. Make sure they are on your list as well.
The next step is to rank them on a scale of 0-10 according to the amount of discomfort they cause you. A rank of zero would indicate you have no discomfort at all, and a rank of 10 would indicate severe anxiety. This can be an ongoing process, as you encounter situations that make you feel anxious add them to your list, and make sure you rank them.
Practice the Things That Make You Nervous
We know the thought of practicing these things is probably making you feel a little anxious now, but that’s okay. Remember, avoiding these situations so that you can have a sense of relief sets up a vicious cycle. Avoiding situations gives your mind the opportunity to run wild and fill with thoughts of how awful they are, when reality is much less scary. We’re not promising it won’t be uncomfortable to practice these things, in fact, it’s sure to make you uncomfortable. But over time, it will get less uncomfortable ─ bringing you closer to your goal of overcoming shyness and social anxiety.
So how do you tackle this list? Start with the situations that have a lower ranking and work your way up. Often times, while you do feel some level of discomfort in these situations, the anticipation is significantly worse. For example, if you are going to practice talking to a small group of people you don’t know at a get together, chances are you will dread going, feel very anxious when you arrive and before you begin talking. However, if the conversation flows, you’re level of anxiety will probably decrease the longer you’re there and the conversation goes on.
The goal is that with practice, your anxiety will decrease over time at all points of each situation. As your anxiety decreases in each of these situations, you will grow to fear them less. Confronting the very situations that make you anxious is the key to overcoming social anxiety.
Reward Yourself for Trying
As you are practicing putting yourself in these uncomfortable situations, it’s simple to reflect on the negative after each situation is over. In our example, perhaps there was a pause in conversation, or something you said that you begin to wonder if others thought was weird ─ it’s easy to let these feelings creep into your mind and dominate your thoughts. If you start to feel your mind wonder, focus on the fact that you just confronted your fear! Overcoming shyness and social anxiety doesn’t happen overnight ─ tolerating your discomfort as you practice these situations is a reason to celebrate.
Focusing your mind on the positive ─ the fact that you are facing situations that make you anxious is a reward in itself. However, if you need a little something extra for motivation, consider coming up with some sort of incentive that you can reward yourself with after you practice each situation on your list. Perhaps the reward becomes better as you work your way up to confronting those situations you ranked 9 or 10.
Practice Relaxation Techniques
Something you can begin to do immediately to calm your anxiety is to practice relaxation techniques. One of the easiest ways to relax is deep breathing ─ it slows your heart rate and decreases your blood pressure. You can find a variety of structured breathing exercises to follow online, but all you really need to do is focus on slowly inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. That’s something you can even do in a room full of people!
Once you’ve mastered deep breathing, you can take it another step further with practicing muscle relaxation. One of the common symptoms of anxiety is muscle tension. The next time you’re in a situation that’s making you uncomfortable, pay attention to your muscles and see which ones feel tense. In muscle relaxation, you simply practice tensing up muscles and relaxing them.
Start by finding a comfortable, quiet area. Begin with deep breathing and then take turns tensing each of your muscles for a few seconds, and then releasing that tension. Practicing this muscle relaxation helps you to get used to releasing tension. Yes, it’s probably going to feel weird at first, and you may have a hard time concentrating, but stick with it and you’re sure to enjoy it.
Don’t Let Your Imagination Run Wild
Part of discovering how to overcome social anxiety is learning how to control your mind. You know the way your mind races before, during and after a situation that makes you anxious? Your mind is almost always racing with negative thoughts and the worst possible scenarios. Challenge them! Are you worried about people noticing your anxiety and talking about it after you’re gone? Ask yourself ─ how will they know your anxious? Moreover, why would they care if you are? Chances are they are a little anxious themselves!
Remember those thoughts you recorded in your thought diary? Take each of them one by one and begin to challenge them. How many of those thoughts actually occur? And what would really happen if they did? Try hard to look at them objectively and come up with a positive thought to challenge each negative one.
In addition to challenging those thoughts when your imagination runs wild, you should also try to shift your focus to what would happen if it all went well. What if you were able to walk into the room confidently and talk to a group of people you didn’t know, without anyone noticing your anxiousness? Imagine that scenario playing out when your mind begins to wander to the worst-case scenario. Besides, you’ll never be able to control anyone’s thoughts ─ so why bother focusing on what they think? Instead, focus on what you can control ─ your own imagination ─ and make it work to your benefit.
Focus on What Can Go Right
Your imagination is a powerful tool, but when you have social anxiety, it’s fighting against you ─ racing with all of the worst-case scenarios. What if you were able to get your imagination on your team? Rehearsing positive thoughts may seem silly, but it’s actually one of the most powerful ways to overcome social anxiety.
Here’s how it works. Think about people that you don’t get anxious around ─ likely your family and close friends. Dedicate some time to closing your eyes and envisioning yourself talking to them. Observe how you feel as you talk to them ─ likely at ease, maybe even unafraid to give your opinion and ask questions. Then, imagine yourself in that same conversation with a group of acquaintances or strangers. Chances are your muscles will tense and your mind will begin to wander, but try to harness that energy and imagine yourself feeling the same way you felt around family and friends. The effect of imagining this scenario over time is powerful, and can help you overcome social anxiety.
Get Rid of Safety Behaviors
You know those things you do in a social situation to put your mind at ease? Maybe you focus on standing stiffly, hold your glass so tight no one can notice you shaking or always make sure you have an alcoholic beverage to take the edge off. Think about what it is that you do or focus on when you’re in a social situation that causes you anxiety, and then stop doing it. That’s right ─ we’re suggesting that you stop doing the few things that help you get through those uncomfortable social situations. Of course, we realize this is going to take time and won’t be easy. But you need to get rid of your security blanket.
You see, if you’re like many who suffer from social anxiety, you’ll go years of living with this unease before you seek help. Over the years, in order to cope, you’re likely avoiding some social situations and using your security blanket behaviors to carry you through others. That leaves you thinking that you can’t get through social situations without these behaviors, and that thought is detrimental to making progress in overcoming shyness and social anxiety.
Begin by writing down your security behaviors. If you aren’t sure what they are, try to focus on them the next time you’re practicing confronting the very situations you dread. Better yet ─ make it a section in your thought diary! If you are truly overcoming social anxiety, you aren’t going to have a need for those safety behaviors, and right now, they’re serving as a crutch. So, remove the crutch and start trying to get through these situations without them. (Note: This would make a great first goal, which we’ll discuss later.)
Ask Questions in Conversation
Usually most of your anxiety and discomfort comes from the fact that you’re focusing on yourself and what you’re doing (or not doing) that may cause others to think negatively about you. If you’re keeping a thought diary, look at the thoughts you’ve recorded ─ chances are they reflect this inward focus. As you spend more time thinking about what you’re doing or saying and how it’s perceived, your anxiety is building. So, shift the focus outward.
When you find yourself engaged in a conversation, try turning the focus to the other people you’re talking to by asking questions. You don’t have to stress over thinking about the perfect question to ask ─ there a several easy ones you can rattle off. Ask about a career, school, family, hobbies, favorites (books, movies, TV shows) ─ the list goes on. Think of a few in advance to have ready and waiting to go. It doesn’t stop there. Once you’ve asked a question, focus on remembering their answer. Who knows, something in their answer might trigger you to share. Not only does this shift the focus from you to them, but it also carries the conversation. When the conversation is flowing more naturally, you’re likely to feel more at ease.
Just be Yourself
This is one of the ultimate goals in overcoming social anxiety. If you have shyness or social anxiety, this thought of being yourself around others is probably making you cringe. But let us break it down for you a little bit. Humor us for a moment and imagine that you just act like yourself in the social situations on your list ─ what is it about those actions that scares you?
Chances are you’re thinking about all of your flaws in these situations ─ what if someone noticed your anxiousness? What if you were the cause of an awkward pause in conversation? What if your anxiousness causes an excessive amount of sweat that becomes noticeable through your shirt? Are these realistic “flaws”? Sure they are. However, your perception is that you’re the only one with these imperfections, and that’s not realistic.
The reality is, people who are perfect in all social situations don’t exist. Everyone makes mistakes. So what’s the difference between you and them? They are comfortable being themselves ─ and if one of those things we mentioned happens to them, they just move on or laugh it off. The ultimate goal is to reach the point that you’ve come to terms with those imperfections and you’re at peace with them. After all, who doesn’t have a little bit of noticeable sweat every once and a while?
Part of staying motivated and keeping track of your progress is setting goals for yourself. How do you measure your comfort level improving? You don’t. Avoid setting goals based on your feelings and other’s reactions. Of course, it’s exciting to feel less anxious in situations ─ and that’s a big part of making progress to overcoming social anxiety. Nevertheless, your goals should focus on objective actions.
For each situation on your list that you practice, set a goal. Maybe you start with going through a situation without resorting to any of your safety behaviors. Alternatively, we’ve reviewed how asking questions can help focus your energy on asking questions, rather than focusing on yourself and your anxious feelings. So, set a goal that you’re going to ask three questions in a conversation. At the end of the conversation, you can easily check the goal off your list ─ who knows, maybe next time you’ll shoot for four!
Now we’re sure you’re thinking, “But what if I ask a really stupid question? Or what if the person I ask pauses and doesn’t know how to answer?” It doesn’t matter! What matters is that previously, you would have resisted asking questions as a result of being overwhelmed with anxiety, and you were able to overcome that.
Seek a Therapist
There’s a chance that you may need someone to help you through each of these steps, especially if you’ve been living with society anxiety for a long time. It’s likely that the more time you’ve spent dealing with social anxiety, the more time you’ve spent developing your own safety behaviors and avoidances. Those take time and energy to reverse and undo, and sometimes require extra support.
So, if you try these steps, but are struggling to make progress over time, or just can’t bring yourself to do them at all, you should consider searching for a therapist that has experience in helping people overcome social anxiety. A therapist can talk with you about your feelings, and help support and lead you through these steps. They can also evaluate whether or not medication should be a part of your treatment plan. If it should, a therapist can make recommendations and help to get you on track to overcome social anxiety.
Overcoming social anxiety is difficult, and it’s important to get help if you are making decisions as a result of your social anxiety. While avoiding social situations may give you a sense of relief, it’s not the solution to overcoming social anxiety. Drugs and alcohol may also help you get through social situations, but that can be a dangerous mix as you can begin to depend on drugs and alcohol as a safety behavior to help you feel at ease. That dependency can lead to drug or alcohol abuse. It’s in your best interest to learn how to overcome social anxiety without drugs. At 12 Keys Rehab, we can help you. Contact us to learn more about what we can do to help you put your social anxiety in the past.