12 ways to help overcome social anxiety
Social anxiety disorder is often misunderstood and many people could be suffering in silence. It's much more than feeling shy and not wanting to speak up in big groups. It can really take control and impede your everyday life. Anxiety Care UK states that social anxiety is a common and distressing condition with as many as 40 per cent of the population suffering from it.
The good news is that there are ways to develop new habits to help ease and overcome your social anxiety.
1. Challenge your negative and anxious thoughts. At times it may feel like there's nothing you can do about the way you feel and how you think. In reality though, there are a number of things that can help. Challenging your mentality and negative thoughts can be an effective way to reduce symptoms of social anxiety. Start by identifying the anxious thoughts that automatically pop into your head when you think of social situations. Next, analyse these thoughts and challenge them. Question why you think like this and if your first reaction is actually how you feel or you're just always assuming the worst. Changing the way you think is a long journey and is not an immediate fix but the mind is a powerful thing and it is possible.
2. Be mindful. Being mindful and practicing mindful meditation helps you to be present and aware of your thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental and positive way. In a study published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, researchers found that meditation has effects on activity in particular areas of the brain. Participants who had normal levels of anxiety took part in four 20-minute mindfulness meditation classes. They found up to 39% decrease in anxiety levels after mindfulness training.
3. Go to a coffee shop. If you enjoy watching movies online or catching up on your favourite tv show then try taking your tablet or laptop to your nearest coffee shop. Do an activity you like and feel comfortable with, in an environment that would usually make you anxious. You have the familiarity and comfort of being able to concentrate only on what you're doing but will be pushing your boundaries. Hopefully, you can push yourself but remain in your mental comfort zone at the same time.
4. Create an exposure hierarchy. Identify and rate how each social situation makes you feel in terms of anxiousness. For example, 0 would mean no anxiety and 10 would be a full-blown panic attack. Make a list and write down how you think you would feel for every situation, no matter how small or big. From walking into a room at a gathering to asking a stranger on the tube for the time. It's important to write down on a piece of paper your predictions so that when the times comes to experience it, you know how you thought you would feel.
5. Don't focus on yourself. It's hard to stop the endless mind chatter when you're in situations that make you particularly anxious. We often turn inward and focus on ourselves and how others will perceive us, almost always assuming it will be negative. The thought that everyone will be looking at you when you walk into a room and judging you in one way or another. This isn't the case. Stop focusing on yourself and what other people are thinking of you. Focus on other people, try to be present and make genuine connections. No one's perfect so try to be in the moment and actually listen to what is being said.
6. Adopt a healthier lifestyle to reduce anxiety. The mind and body are linked and how you treat your body can have a significant impact on the rest of your life including your anxiety levels. By making small lifestyle changes, these can help to improve your self-confidence and your ability to cope with anxiety symptoms. Avoid or limit your caffeine intake by not drinking coffee or caffeinated drinks after a certain time. Energy drinks act as a stimulant and can increase anxiety symptoms. Make physical exercise a priority in your day and always try to be active at some point, even taking a brisk walk during your lunch hour is a great way to fit it in.
Drink plenty of water, stay hydrated and get enough high-quality sleep. When you're deprived of sleep, you're much more vulnerable to anxiety and your mood can be affected greatly. New research suggests that sleep deprivation can actually cause an anxiety disorder.
7. Take a breath. The physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, pounding chest, dizziness and muscle tension. Learning to take a minute and slow down your breath can help you take back control of your body. Simply take a seat, get comfortable and take the biggest breath you've taken all day and hold it in for four seconds. Then exhale slowly, pushing out as much air as possible. Take another deep breath filling the stomach with air and continue until you feel your breath slowing down to its normal rate.
8. Act confidently. There are a large number of adults suffering from social phobia and crippling shyness. You can learn to be confident in the same way you learned to ride a bike. Act more confidently and people will react positively. This doesn't mean you need to be the class clown or the centre of attention. It's just about being more assertive. Something that feels terrifying at first will gradually feel better each time.
9. Find social situations and engage. Make a conscious effort to be more social. Actively look for supportive social environments that can help you overcome your fears. Perhaps start with a social skills training class. Here you can properly practice your social interactions before heading out into the real world. This will give you some tips on what to say and do when you find yourself in a social situation you're unfamiliar with or anxious about.
10. Be kind to yourself. Nobody's perfect and everyone feels embarrassed at one point or another in their life. Overcoming social anxiety is by no means easy. You'll have times where you think negatively and slip back into old habits. If you're feeling run down or tired, you may find yourself feeling more anxious than normal but it doesn't mean you've failed. Just take a minute, focus on the present and practice the techniques you've been working on.
11. Talk. By overcoming social anxiety and shyness you will hopefully start feeling more confident during conversations. Talking to someone can be very challenging and knowing what to say isn't easy. Sometime's an awkward silence can feel like it lasts a lifetime. Talking to people gradually will help you be less anxious each time.
12. Face your fears. The final step is to face your fears. It's impossible to overcome social anxiety if you don't expose yourself to situations that make you anxious. By using avoidance as a tool to cope, you won't be helping yourself or encouraging personal growth. Numerous studies have shown that exposure therapy, facing your fears, is effective in treating anxiety disorders. Research does suggest, however, that exposure should be applied gently. Therefore take part in a social interaction or activity that only slightly provokes your anxiety and work your way up.
Overcoming social anxiety is a long journey and it takes time for new neural pathways for social interactions to form. Is your social anxiety is constantly interfering with your daily life? Then don't hesitate to seek professional help in whatever form you feel comfortable looking for. These are great ways to help overcome your social anxiety. Although it seems like an impossible obstacle, it's so worth overcoming so you can live your life to the fullest.
Chloe Brotheridge is a hypnotherapist and anxiety expert and the author of The Anxiety Solution. -Psychology Today