Strategies to Ease Anxiety in Social Situations

How do you respond when invited to a social gathering?  Do you find yourself feeling tense, queasy, and on edge just anticipating the event?  Do you often agree to attend social events then cancel last minute because it’s just too uncomfortable?  Do you feel overwhelmed at the thought of managing yourself in a group of people?

If you tend to avoid social events due to feelings of anxiety, you are not alone.  Social anxiety is one of the most common mental health struggles people face in the United States.  Over 15 million adults in the US experience social anxiety.  And for most of them the symptoms began in childhood.

Learning to manage your social anxiety effectively can help open up your world and your sense of ease in it.

Strategies to Manage Social Anxiety

Accept your anxiety.  While it may seem counter-intuitive, learning to expect and lovingly accept that you will feel anxious in social situations actually helps you function better.  It’s important to know yourself.  Know the ways anxiety surfaces for you and in which situations.  So if you tend to get a stomachache as you get ready for a party, then try to anticipate and accept this as part of your experience without judging or criticizing yourself for it.  Be kind to yourself rather than piling on suffering by beating yourself up for this anxiety.  Resist the tendency to tell yourself that you are a failure or weak because you feel anxious.  Instead, tell yourself that it is okay to feel anxiety and do the activity anyway.

Practice effective coping skills.  Develop a tool kit for managing the physiological arousal of anxiety that works for you.  Anxiety is like a false alarm that there is danger.  Our body responds be preparing for fight, flight, or flee with increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, stomach upset, dry mouth, etc.  Learning to cope with this natural response to anxiety will give you confidence to get through challenging moments.  Everyone is a bit different regarding the most effective coping skills.  But most people benefit from a mix of strategies that manages the environment (like listening to calming music as you prepare for a social event), your thoughts (challenging irrational fears and replacing them with encouraging self-talk), and your body (such as taking deep breaths, stretching, tensing then relaxing certain muscle groups).  Figure out which combination of strategies work for you and try practicing them as a regular prevention, in anticipation of challenging, and as recovery after an anxious event.  Avoid unhealthy coping strategies like drinking alcohol so that you do not become dependent on a crutch to manage your uncomfortable feelings.

Set a meaningful intention for social events.  Social situations with large groups often feel overwhelming to people who are more comfortable in one on one situations.  Knowing that you are a person who is more at ease and likely to enjoy one on one conversations, make this an intention for your event.  Rather than expecting yourself to glide about interacting with everyone in a group like a social butterfly, focus instead on having one or two meaningful conversations with one or two people.  Imagine leaving the social event feeling gratified that you accomplished your intention of getting to know someone new or better.  This allows you to shine in ways you are already successful rather than imagining all the worst-case scenarios.

Choose social events wisely.  It is important to note that avoiding situations that tend to trigger anxiety will only increase your experience of anxiety and tendency to avoid such situations.  So it is important to continually expose yourself to anxiety provoking social situations in order to learn that you can tolerate the discomfort without something terrible happening.  That being said, you can also give yourself permission to choose these events wisely, based on how meaningful it is to you.  You do not need to say yes to every single social invitation or group activity.  Pace yourself so you do not get too drained.  Just also be certain to regularly push yourself beyond your comfort zone for events that are worth it to you.

Practice grace.  Give yourself permission to struggle through this.  Having social anxiety is not a character flaw or personal failing.  Continuing to step into anxiety provoking situations with strategies to manage this feeling allows you to gradually develop confidence that you can handle it.  Challenge yourself gently to extend your comfort zone by perhaps staying a few minutes longer than you normally would or joining a small group of people.  They key is to keep trying again and again.  Even if you find yourself cancelling last minute on a social event, set an intention to try again and again.

Seek professional help when needed.  Most people struggle for 10 years or more before ever seeking professional help for social anxiety.  If your anxiety is mild and only minimally interfering with your life, then you may be able to manage it on your own with these strategies.  However, if you find that your anxiety is causing your world to become smaller and smaller and your functioning to diminish at work or in your relationships, then it is time to seek professional interventions.  Social anxiety is highly responsive to psychotherapy.  Find a provider who understands your concerns and can help you achieve your goals.

Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog.  If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below.  If you are interested in scheduling an appointment at Lakefront Psychology, LLC for a psychotherapy consultation, please call 216-870-9816.

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