7 Ways to Manage Your Social Anxiety
Getting anxious around other people is the worst. The amount of times at school, parties or at gatherings my parents would organise and make me go to I remember wanting to just run away from it all and have everyone stop looking at me. I was comfortable enough around my friends or family, but the minute someone I didn't know was around, I just wanted to shrink away from everything and everyone. This blog lays out 7 practical steps to managing social anxiety I wish I had known about back then.
Why Practical Steps Are Important When Managing Social Anxiety
Online there seem to be two types of advice around anxiety and shyness. Soothing or Practical. A focus on feeling better or a focus on doing better. I focus on doing better most of the time, and when I say doing I mean it in it's most literal sense - what actions we take.
I think we can focus on feeling better for a bit but after awhile we need to focus on what we can do to improve things. It is only once we start focusing on the actions we take that we have any chance at all to manage and overcome our social anxiety. With all that being said, here is my list of the 7 best practical things you can do to manage your social anxiety.
1) Start A Journal
A journal is a great way of getting your thoughts down on paper. But it is so much more than that. One of the best things we can do is understand the timeline of our anxiety. By this, I mean figuring out exactly what it is that sets the response off, what the thoughts and emotions are around the stimulus, and how you act towards yourself afterwards.
This is not an easy thing to do. Reading back your anxious thoughts can make you feel bad or cringe with embarrassment about how you speak to yourself when you are anxious. But doing this as an exercise is incredibly useful. Most of us just know that we get anxious around other people, but that information is hard to work with. If we journal and figure out that we always start to feel anxious when we walk into the room, or have to go up and say hello and get more precise then we have some really good quality information to work with.
We can work on exposing ourself to the feared part of the interaction over and over first with visualisation exercises and then by actually going there and doing it until there is no longer a problem. There are many ways of addressing the problem but for now just getting it all down is the best start.
2) Alter, Don't Affirm
This is absolutely going to be the most controversial tip here. I am not a big believer or fan in 'affirmations' as they are commonly talked about in the self-development industry. There is some robust evidence from the scientific community that demonstrates affirmations may actually be harmful. It must be said that this is specifically referring to affirmations of the type given out by the self-development community, which are overly positive and, in some cases, lies.
I'll give you some examples of these affirmations and why they may not be such a good idea to say to yourself in the mirror every day:
- "I am an amazing person who enriches the lives of everyone around me"
- "I deserve all the happiness and success in the world"
- "I am perfect just the way I am"
On the surface all of these, especially the last one, seem nice, benign and a pleasant thing to think about ourselves. The problem comes when this thought is too far removed from a negative self belief and, most importantly, there is little to no evidence in the world out there which proves it.
It is possibly the case that these three things are not true at all. It very likely that we are not amazing (as I interpret amazing to be the pinnacle of humanity - I most certainly am not amazing). It is also probable that if we are highly anxious and have a low mood often that we are not constantly enriching the lives of those around us. And if we are in that mood we know that. So there is no point in trying to say otherwise, we need to begin to act differently, not say nice things about ourselves.
The second affirmation is absolutely insidious and sets us up for jealousy and resentment. Happiness is little understood and is not a right in my opinion. You can listen to me speak about this on my podcast here, or on other podcasts here.
The third one is blatantly untrue, as nobody is perfect and it is unwise to pretend to be. So this then leads us to ask, well what instead?
The best thing to do is alter the negative thought to something more reasonable. Not overly positive but a more positive or neutral alternative. Make it a thought that provokes curiosity and that even the most negative, anxious, self-flagellating individual can accept. For example:
Instead of "I am hopeless and everyone hates me" try "I am not sure how people really react to me, I could improve this skill with work"
Not exactly positive, but not negative either. Definitely more realistic and provides room to grow and improve.
3) Introduce Doubt
Following on from the last point - we need to start doubting how true those negative thoughts we get are. When we are feeling shy and anxious, we are often involved with an internal dialogue trying to both motivate and berate ourselves.
Usually we feel good about the situation, or take action, depending on who wins, the angel or the devil. Unfortunately part of being socially anxious means we are likely to make certain thinking errors that make it hard for the positive side to win this war.
The good news is that we can do a lot to control those negative thoughts and make sure we take action. More often than not, the first step to take is to simply allow ourselves to doubt the negative thoughts. Not to try and shout over them but just to doubt them.
If we can do this, then we can start looking at ourselves more objectively and more realistically, which in turn allows us space to disprove our automatic negative thoughts and beliefs.
4) Give Up Caffeine
Now on to something a little more practical, and away from our thought processes.
It is well known that caffeine produces a set of sensations that are shared with anxiety. Heart racing, alertness, shakiness are associated with both, and it has been shown time and time again that people who have a lot of caffeine also tend to be more prone to anxiety. This is because we are looking for a 'reason' to have this response, and an anxious mind is always too happy to find things out in the world to explain the anxious sensations.
I am by no means a saint here, but I personally limit myself to one caffeinated drink a day (usually a tea as I like the ritual around making it in a pot). You would be amazed at the number of people who walk into a session with me for the first time, occasionally late, carrying a coffee cup.
This post is no place for a sermon about lifestyle, though I do write about how to improve the lifestyle factors associated with anxiety. Let me end this point by stating the obvious. Cut down your caffeine and you are likely to feel less anxious in general.
Exercise is good for us. End of story. As annoying as it is to admit when you have baked two cakes on the weekend and you do not feel like going to the gym when you could sit on the couch watching Criminal Minds (not that I am speaking from experience).
The literature is so clear in the scientific community that many institutions, universities or even some companies offer free gym memberships and exercise classes to people with anxiety and depression. There are a few barriers to exercise however and so I want to address and solve these quickly:
- Gym memberships are expensive. This is true, I've just moved to a cheaper gym and it still costs me £30 a month! However you can get an exercise mat and work out at home or just go for a run/brisk walk every day.
- People at the gym will reject me/I'll be uncomfortable. I have had several clients who have said this to me. The best thing to do here is to follow some of the advice from above, because nobody cares. I was doing a new exercise in the gym earlier and I, rather embarrassingly, fell off my bench and landed with a loud bump. Nobody batted an eyelid. If you really can't make yourself go right now, then again, think about exercising at home. It's only you there.
- I don't feel motivated to go. This is the big one, because honestly who does? The key thing is to make it a routine, and the best way to do that is to start small. Try walking for 10 minutes a day, no more, no less. Also, see above, you can exercise at home for 5 minutes if you can't bear leaving the house.
When you exercise it is incredible how much better you feel. Your sleep improves, your body gets better at regulating emotion, just do it.
This is something that may catch you by surprise. There has been some interesting research that shows people who volunteer their time for a cause tend to be more emotionally resilient. I volunteer for the Alzheimers Society, spending around 4 hours a week in the company of people with different stages of dementia.
It isn't exactly cheery all the time, but the connections I've made with other fantastic volunteers are a positive addition to my life. Volunteering also gives us a chance to stop thinking about our problems for a bit, which is nice. When you help those who are worse off than yourself it also puts your life in perspective, something that is incredibly important.
As a point, I'd say don't publicise if you volunteer or not. Do it for you and because it is a good thing, not for social media likes. That's just a personal bugbear I have so feel free to ignore it.
Either way, if you can spend an hour or two a week to give back to something you really care about, your mental wellbeing improves, and the lives of other people improves as well.
7) Speak To Someone
Speaking to someone and admitting you are struggling can be the hardest thing to do. You may already speak to your friends and family and feel they don't understand. You may not want to tell them what's really going on because you feel like you are just bothering them, or that they will get annoyed with you.
In my experience, most people are decent. People who you count as friends and family are going to want to support you when they can, and if you can articulate exactly what goes through your head they may be able to help. Or offer support. Or just be a sounding board to let you get things off your chest.
All of that is better than just locking it away and letting the thoughts drive you slowly mad. On the other hand, if you feel that you have no one to talk to, or your friends can family can't help there are two options for you.
The first is to join a social anxiety group online, most likely on Facebook. I am a member of a couple of these and I have a warning. It gets very negative, very quickly. Often people are posting their misery hoping to find pity rather than support. This sounds harsh, but when people are posting 'there is no hope for me, everything is awful' day in, day out, in response to anything vaguely positive it paints that picture. Some people will always offer good advice, and I see many positive individuals working through their problems in a good way. However, for some their misery is so extreme that they want others to commiserate and give up alongside them. And that is not good.
The second option is to speak to a professional. I personally offer 30 minute free consultations where people can speak about their problems to me. I will often suggest working with me as a solution, but many people get a lot out of just having someone listen - and there are lots of other people out there, not just me. Some of these will offer a free session, some won't. You could find online therapy or coaching websites that may be affordable, I'm not sure. The one thing I can say is that the internet is a big place, and I'm sure there is someone out there who is happy to listen.
- Sharing the problem shares the load.
- Friends and family are usually willing to just listen and support.
- Speaking to a professional will usually provide support and guidance.
To finish this post off I want to leave you with a feeling of optimism. There are many practical ways to manage social anxiety. It's not always easy, but it is often simple. There is support out there for pretty much every step I've listed and, most importantly, every step has been proven to work time and time again.
Let me know if you enjoyed this post by leaving a comment below. Please share it if you have found it useful, because someone else might find it useful as well. And if you do want to speak to me, make a booking here. Like I said earlier, I'll speak to you for 30 minutes for free.
See you next time!