Well-Being//

A Clinical Psychologist Explains How to Beat Social Anxiety

What it means to avoid other people — and what to do about it

By Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock
By Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock

Life is rough for the socially anxious — any human interaction can be torturous to them. Everyone sometimes feels nervous in social settings. But some people have more extreme anxiety that can harm their relationships, success, and happiness.

The rise of digital communication seems to be making it even more difficult for them to interact with others in person. Today you can talk to friends and family, order rides and groceries, do your job, get paid, and manage your finances without ever talking to anyone in person.

When people think of social anxiety, many imagine a shy introvert who doesn’t go out and doesn’t say much. It’s important to note that social anxiety goes beyond being introverted or extroverted. Being an introvert does not necessarily make you vulnerable to social anxiety. Extroverts are equally susceptible to social anxiety — socially anxious extroverts do exist.

Introversion/extroversion is how you’re wired — whereas social anxiety gets in your way. Introverts get their energy by choosing to be alone or in small groups, while extroverts get their energy from larger groups of people.

Non-anxious introverts can be perfectly happy with their lives — alone or in a social situation. Social anxiety holds you back because of fear. People who are anxious in public often choose to avoid social situations — when they anticipate going to a party or a networking event, or meeting new people, they get anxious quickly — but when they decide not to do it, the anxiety immediately decreases. This reduction of anxiety reinforces avoidance (or escape). It gets worse the more they isolate themselves.

According to Stefan G. Hofmann, the director of the Social Anxiety Program at Boston University, “Social anxiety is a result of the fear of a possibility that we will not be accepted by our peers. It’s the fear of negative evaluation by others, and that is [part of] a very fundamental, biological need to be liked. That’s why we have social anxiety.” Insecurity is part of the human condition.

He says it’s normal to be uncomfortable in novel social situations. But it becomes social anxiety disorder if it interferes with our lives and causes us to be terribly distressed around people in social situations, such as meeting people, giving speeches, or doing things in front of people. Anxiety can be debilitating for people when it starts to undermine their daily lives.

To combat social anxiety, Hofmann argues that people should face their anxiety by engaging exposure practices, where they expose themselves to these situations repeatedly and for a long period of time so that they can realize that nothing bad is happing. “It is very effective. We have a response rate of at least 75 percent,” he says.

Dr Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist, a researcher at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, and the author of “How to be Yourself” says “Social anxiety is a perception that there is something wrong or deficient about us, and unless we work hard to hide that perceived deficiency, we’ll be revealed or judged or rejected.”

Many people have this perception that others are thinking about them the same way they view themselves or paying attention to what they’re paying attention to. “ But the truth is that everybody else is walking around in their own spotlight, their own bubble. It’s not that nobody notices when we do something embarrassing or dumb, but they don’t notice nearly as much as we think. And remembering that goes a long way in reducing our anxiety.”

Hendriksen proposes a simple but powerful idea: you already have everything you need to succeed in any unfamiliar social situation. She says the way past social anxiety is directly through it. Leaning into uncomfortable situations by focusing on anything except yourself, is the best way to get over the discomfort. “Go forth and do” she advises. “The best thing to do is always to take on the challenges and do the things we’re scared to do — that’s how you realize it’s not so bad and that’s how you build confidence,” she explains.

To make fear less scary when you choose to take a leap into uncomfortable situations, recognize and accept them to let them go. Or better still practice premeditation. That’s when you ask, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and realize it’s not that bad. Really thinking about just how awful things can be often has the ironic effect of making you realize they’re not that bad.

You can also reinterpret your feelings with a new story that makes them less scary. The stories you tell yourself about the potential outcomes of events can change everything. “The vast majority of social anxiety is anticipatory. Oftentimes, once we take the leap and are in the moment, we do feel anxious at first, but if we can resist the urge to avoid pulling the plug, the anxiety will naturally plateau and start to decline,” says Hendriksen. When we avoid scary things you become more scared. When you face your fears they become less frightening, especially when you survive the first few minutes.

A feeling of social anxiety can hold you back from building better relationships, reaching your goals, and just enjoying life in general. It is possible to change. Don’t allow the discomfort of social situations get in the way of your best life.

Originally published on Medium.

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