Taking Control of Social Anxiety

March 18, 2019

Social anxiety can feel like you’re permanently in your worst phase of junior high: tongue-tied, anxious, and full of dread. This seems totally counterintuitive to what social experiences are “meant” to be, namely positive, enjoyable, fun times. If the idea of a simple Starbucks date with a pal or colleague has you wanting to dive back under the covers and give up your caffeine fix for the day (GASP, SHOCK, HORROR!), then you’ve come to the right place. This edition of Lauren’s Top Tips is focused on overcoming social anxiety and feeling more relaxed when you’re not solo.

1. Get your self-talk in check. 

You know that voice that is always in your head, talking to you no matter what you’re doing? It’s kind of like a fledgling superhero; it’s gotta decide if it’s using its power for good or evil. Self-talk is indeed a very powerful thing. It influences the way we feel about nearly everything, including how we perceive ourselves and others. We don’t often actively pay attention to our inner thoughts or self-talk, but it’s a valuable exercise to tune in and listen. You’ll get important information about why you’re anxious. 

For example, imagine you’re at a networking event and you find your self-talk saying things like “Everyone is going to see through me and know that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m such a fraud, there’s no way they’ll want to work with me, I am such a joke.” Do you think language like this is setting yourself up for success and confidence or failure and self-doubt? It is obviously not helpful to you, and not true! Anxiety is our fears talking, but when we have thoughts in our head, we often believe them to be true.

The key is to challenge these thoughts with more positive and helpful thoughts. Remind yourself of the great things you have accomplished, new skills you have learned or improved, and the natural raw material you have to support your work. If this seems confusing at first, imagine your negative self-talk as a bully whispering in your ear. Kick that jerk to the curb and instead imagine what your best friend would say to encourage you. Listen to that voice.

2. Get your face time on. 

Put down the iPhone… the face time I’m talking about does not require an app. An excellent way to improve that self-talk described in my first point is to practice with affirmations. Affirmations are positive thoughts that you repeat to yourself to help you feel more comfortable with them. 

This is an excellent exercise to jump-start your improved self-talk. Get in front of a mirror. Have one, two, or three thoughts in mind that you want to affirm for yourself. Look yourself in the eye in the mirror and say these things to yourself out loud. I say to aim for ten repetitions, but there is no right or wrong number. When the affirmation feels like it’s settling well in your mind, you’ll know.

Let’s imagine you’re getting ready for a date. A great set of affirmations may be “I am loveable. I am attractive inside and out. New people love getting to know me.” This should be tailored to any specific anxieties or fears that you have, and your counsellor can help determine some examples that suit your needs. 

Be forewarned: This may feel a little cheesy at first. Some people feel a bit silly or embarrassed and have trouble taking in the suggestion in the affirmation. Stick with it. Most of my clients report that once they get over the initial awkward feelings, affirmations are extremely helpful and an easy way to boost confidence while reducing anxious feelings.

3. Get your tool box ready. 

While I believe self-talk is key to confidence and comfort in social situations, there are other more tangible tools that work wonders to help you feel better. The first tool is a way to physically relax. That may come in the form of deep breathing exercises, a meditation practice, or (my personal fave) Clinical Hypnosis. 

Keeping your physical self relaxed encourages your mind to keep calm, too. Another idea is to bring a wingman! If you’re attending a conference, see if a colleague you already know and trust wants to go along with you. Headed to a party? Ask your friend to tag along. This person should not be a crutch or a roadblock to meeting new people, but rather someone who can grease the wheels of conversation with others so that you feel like you have an ally.

4. Do it again.  And again.  And again.

Repeated exposure is the key to overcoming any fear or discomfort.  Avoidance just perpetuates anxiety, making it worse. Regard it as a challenge and set goals for yourself. Make it a point to call a friend on the phone three times a week. Set an objective to make a verbal comment in every meeting you attend. Rate your discomfort from 1 to 10 each time. Check in with yourself after a good period of time; if, a month in, your anxiety has gone from an 8 to a 5, then you’re improving! High five!

Remember, while not everyone has severe anxiety when it comes to social situations, most do feel a little nervous or shy. We all present our best faces when we’re with others, so we don’t know what’s going on in each other’s heads. Some people may think you’re cool as a cucumber in public, believe it or not! Regardless, it can be helpful to know that we’re all in the same boat. Also remember that you’re not a fortune teller or a mind reader; you have no prior knowledge of how the event will go (“It’s gonna be horrible, I’m gonna come across like a loser!”) or what others think of you (“They all think I’m so dumb and awkward! They wish I’d just go home already.”). Go in with an open mind, armed with my tips, and notice how much better you feel.

**Disclaimer:  The advice in this article is for informational purposes only and does not replace the diagnosis/treatment of a licensed medical or mental health professional.**

Lauren Berger is a Registered Social Worker Psychotherapist providing counselling and psychotherapy at IHI.  Check her out at www.laurenberger.ca, drop her a line at lauren@laurenberger.ca, follow her on Twitter: @LaurenBergerMSW, or sneak a peek at her Instagram: laurenberger_msw.

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