Social anxiety— the feeling of stress, fear, or nervousness around social situations—affects about 15 million Americans. It’s important to know that you’re not alone, and that social anxiety is manageable. To mitigate the effects of social anxiety, you must find a way to understand your trigger situations, practice positive coping mechanisms and avoid resorting to unhealthy habits. What works best depends on your specific situation, but there are some common places anyone can start. Here are a few ideas to help you learn how to ease your anxiety and come to enjoy social situations.
Understand—and face—your triggers
Ignoring or trying to avoid triggers of social anxiety won’t make it go away. You might assume that the less you think about it, the better off you’ll be. However, if you use that strategy, you’ll never address the root cause of your anxiety and move through the distress and discomfort. The only way to do that is to take an honest look at your triggers, and to face them head on. However, that must be done slowly, intentionally, and sensitively.
One suggestion, which is oftentimes implemented with the help of a trained mental health clinician, is to create an exposure hierarchy. An exposure hierarchy is a type of empirically-based therapeutic intervention where you list situations where you feel anxious, in order of severity. Then you engage in the easiest one and move up the list toward the most anxiety-producing social situation you face. You can do this by:
- Assigning your different anxiety triggers a point value and ranking them. For example, taking the dog for a walk around the neighborhood may be low on your scale, while talking to a person you’re attracted to may be toughest. Start with walking your dog and slowly work your way up. Talking with a therapist as you move your way through your steps and ensuring that you have appropriate distress tolerance skills is very important.
- Setting a specific goal and begin working to achieve it in small increments. Earn small victories and increase your exposure until you’ve eventually completed your main objective.
- If your main source of social anxiety comes from interacting with strangers, you can start building your confidence by interacting with people in more relaxed environments. The point is to progress toward overcoming whatever causes you anxiety, but it is okay to go slow.
If you suffer from social anxiety, you have to work on managing the distress both in mind and body. One effective way to do that is to focus on eating healthy and engaging in enjoyable movements, such as dance, gardening, kickboxing, yoga, or exercise. Eating nutritiously can give you more energy and improve your mood. Movement not only boosts your confidence, but also releases chemicals in your brain that can lead to improvements in mood and may result in a decrease in depression and anxiety. You might consider learning and practicing relaxation exercises each say, such as:
- Yoga – which may help release tension in both the mind and body.
- Meditation – which may help us to let go of mental and physical anguish.
- Mindfulness – this can help us stay attuned to the present moment.
- Focused breathing – this may help to lower heart rate and blood pressure.
These exercises place you firmly in the present moment, focused on relaxing your mind and body. While practicing yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and focused breathing, allow for every day cares and concerns may fall by the wayside, as you’re forced into the present and less focused on a future worry. According to Zenbusiness, it is also helpful to remain focused on the process and not just your ultimate outcome, as drastic changes are more difficult to sustain.
Be careful not to develop bad habits
Some people may have a drink or two at a party to relax, viewing it as a potential buffer between a person and their social anxiety. However, in relying on substances to cope with anxiety, a person is at risk for increasing physical and mental health problems. If you find yourself using drugs or alcohol to assist in social situations, you may be developing a problematic pattern of substance use. Luckily, there are many support systems out there, to include outpatient therapy, intensive-outpatient therapy, partial hospitalization programs, and residential treatment. A therapist can perform an assessment and help you to better understand what your best course of treatment may be.
Social anxiety may not be something you completely cure, but you can learn to cope with it and come to enjoy social situations. However, this takes commitment, practice, and intentional use of positive coping strategies. Learn how to relax when anxiety is at its worst and make a plan to challenge yourself to face your anxiety triggers.
We can help! Take the first step and make an appointment with us at Be Bold Psychology & Consulting! We have an LGBTQIA-affirming, multidisciplinary team of clinicians who are well-versed in the treatment of social anxiety, substance use, and interpersonal relationships! Request your appointment today!