Social anxiety, which is characterised by an overwhelming fear of social situations, is stated as the most common type of anxiety. According to Social Anxiety Ireland, social anxiety affects about 1 in 8 people in Ireland. Managing social anxiety can be difficult, with symptoms including a fear of negative judgment or criticism, a fear of physical symptoms that can cause embarrassment, and an avoidance of situations that can create those feelings of fear, overwhelm, or physical reactions.
So, can the experience of social anxiety be managed and improved, and how so? Well, the answer is yes, and here are some ways.
While it is recommended that you try to work with a trained therapist who can guide you through the steps for managing social anxiety and provide support along the way, below are some of our top methods for managing and overcoming social anxiety to get you started.
1. Explore the source of your anxiety
It is widely believed that in order to resolve a problem, we first have to identify the root of it, and, in the process of managing social anxiety, this is an effective first step.
Anxiety tends to be something we develop in response to a threat. For instance, if we experienced criticism or blame by our caregivers or teachers growing up, we will likely be more prone to developing a fear of being criticised by our peers, colleagues, or romantic partners. If we have experienced bullying, abuse, or harassment, it makes sense that we might develop a fear of being in the social world, where those harmful experiences could potentially happen again.
Here are some questions to ask yourself, in exploring where your anxiety comes from:
- What am I really anxious about in this particular scenario?
Go deep in your query. A common response is ‘I might be judged’ or ‘I’m afraid people will see me’. Why is that scary? Are you afraid of being judged for your behaviour, or your appearance? Or are you instead afraid of being complimented, accepted, or understood?
- Where or when did I learn to feel anxious about this?
Sit with yourself and think about a time you felt safe and comfortable in a situation that now scares or worries you. What is your earliest memory of when you started to be afraid? How old were you? What happened to create this fear?
2. Try to reframe unhelpful thoughts
This method is commonly used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which is based on the idea that our feelings are related to how we think about something, and how we then behave in response.
Questions to help shift unhelpful thoughts:
- What are some common unhelpful thoughts I think or have about myself in social situations?
- What are some fears or worries I have when I think about social situations?
- How true are my thoughts about myself? (100% = This is true of me all the time in all situations)
- How likely is it that this feared scenario is going to happen? (100% = It will 100% happen as it has before and always will).
- What are some instances of times where I was not [insert unhelpful thought about self here], or when my anticipated fear did not happen?
- What are some helpful thoughts I can create instead, to counter the ‘unhelpful thoughts’ that come into my mind?
It can be helpful to list three to five ‘helpful thoughts’ and keep them in a space you can see (eg. beside your bed, on your bathroom mirror) to remind yourself of them when your anxiety begins to rear its head.
3. Develop coping and soothing strategies for managing anxiety
A belief that might come with social anxiety, and indeed other forms of anxiety, is the idea that if the feared situation happens, we will not be able to cope with it. This fear can be paralysing, whether it is likely to happen or not. Having a coping plan can help us feel some form of control and predictability in anxious situations, and can help with managing social anxiety day to day.
- Create a specific action plan involving a list of steps you can take, for each feared situation you might have, so you know what to do if your fear does come true.
- Develop a regular calming practice at home with exercises such as deep belly breaths, hatha/yin yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation. Spending 5 to 10 minutes a day in a calm and relaxed state can make it easier for the body to return to this state when physical anxiety arises.
- Have soothing items that can appeal to your senses and relax/distract you as needed eg. a sour candy, a photo of something calming, a sensory toy, or an ‘anxiety’ playlist consisting of calming songs.
4. Try exposure therapy with a trained professional
As humans, we have natural inclinations to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Anxiety is not comfortable to experience, and desires to avoid it are therefore normal. However, long-term avoidance of situations can start to get in the way of us reaching our potential or life dreams. For example, someone who is career-focused might need the social skills to give presentations or interact and network with people, and avoiding those situations can inhibit their goals. Someone who desires connection and secure relationships might avoid meeting new people due to a fear of being embarrassed or rejected, and instead develop loneliness from being isolated.
Exposure therapy works on the concept of habituation which is the idea that the more we experience something, the less it affects us. In the context of social anxiety (or emotions in general), the idea is that the more we expose ourselves to our feared scenarios or feared emotions, the easier they become to experience over time.
Think of a time you experienced an intense emotion that you felt deeply in your body. Perhaps you were feeling anxious about a conflict, feeling joy from connection or winning something, or feeling disgusted after tasting something awful. What happened? How intense was your reaction? If you were to experience this same event again, how intense might the emotion be this time? What if this experience happened to you 20 times in a day? What if you were to experience this 100, or 1000 times? Would you still feel as intensely?
For those who feel skeptical, here’s a challenge to try exposing yourself to your anxieties in small, safe ways, and observe how they might start to feel just a tiny bit easier over time.
5. Try other forms of therapy for managing social anxiety
Our expert team of therapists are specialised in treating anxiety disorders through various approaches, and will work with you to explore the challenges you are facing and manage your social anxiety in a way that works for you. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you wish to work with someone to explore, manage and improve experiences of social anxiety. Appointments can be made via 01 611 1719 or [email protected].