Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is an intense fear of becoming extremely anxious and possibly humiliated in social situations — specifically of embarrassing yourself in front of other people.

A person who suffers from social anxiety tends to think that other people are far better at public speaking, or hanging out in a social situation and mingling with others at a party. The person tends to focus on every little small mistake they do in a social situation, and exaggerate them out of proportion.

Social phobia disrupts normal life, interfering with career or social relationships. For example, a worker can turn down a job promotion because he can’t give public presentations. The dread of a social event can begin weeks in advance, and symptoms can be quite debilitating.

Overcoming social anxiety

Overcoming social anxiety is more challenging than most people think. For many people, overcoming social anxiety comes with a lot of anxiety. And anxiety makes overcoming social anxiety very difficult. But why is overcoming social anxiety so difficult?

It’s difficult because people highlight negative experiences and ignore positive ones. The negative experiences receive far more attention than the positive ones. Often, one bad experience is considered to be the rule rather than the exception. Without proper guidelines, overcoming social anxiety is more than just challenging.

Here are a few steps that can help you overcome social anxiety:

Step 1: How to regulate anxiety through breathing

The first step in overcoming social anxiety is to control your breathing. Through breathing exercises you learn to calm down when you are getting nervous and sweaty. Most socially anxious people start worrying about the fact that they are becoming nervous and start to sweat. Worrying makes people more nervous and sweat more. Breathing exercises, however, calms down your body, slows down your heartbeat, and makes you feel more relaxed. Breathing exercises are a powerful tool in overcoming social anxiety.Here are the 4 steps to exercise your breathing:

  1. Sit comfortably on a chair - Straighten your back and relax your shoulders. Wait for a few seconds. Then place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest.
  2. Take a slow, but deep breath through your nose for about 4 seconds. You’ll notice that the hand on your chest barely moves and that the hand on your stomach rises.
  3. Hold your breath for about 2 seconds. Then, exhale slowly through your mouth for about 6 seconds. Try to empty your lungs, but don’t force anything. Again you’ll notice little movement in the hand on your chest. The hand on your stomach, however, goes down as you exhale.
  4. Repeat this process for a while, and focus on breathing slow and deep.

Once you’ve practised this a few times, you’ll notice that it becomes easier. You don’t have to put your hand on your chest and stomach any more. When you go to a social event, and you notice you’re getting a little nervous, try to calm yourself down with this breathing exercise. You’ll see that it works!

Step 2: Helpful conversation techniques to lower anxiety levels

The second step in overcoming social anxiety is to give you more confidence during conversations. Talking to someone can be very challenging when you don’t know what to say, when there is an awkward silence, or when you’re afraid of saying something silly. So I guess it’s important to give you some tools to avoid these painful moments, and to boost your confidence when it comes to talking to others. In the end, overcoming social anxiety is a lot easier when you have positive experiences.

  1. Let the other do the work - When people feel uncomfortable during a conversation they usually make an effort to keep the conversation going. A common way to do this is to talk a lot, to talk about (sometimes) silly things, or by asking a lot of questions (as if you are interrogating someone). Despite the fact that you’re working hard to keep the conversation going, it doesn’t reduce your anxiety levels. By making the other person work hard you have time to think, remain calm, and enjoy the conversation. You make the other person work by asking open-ended questions. Open-ended questions require more than one word answers. An example is ˝How did you and your best friend meet?˝. The other person has to answer in more details. This gives you the opportunity to formulate a new open-ended question. And so on. Closed-ended questions require only one word answers. This means you have to ask more questions and thus work harder.
  2. One word questions - One word questions are great for when you just joined a conversation and want to participate, or when the other person tells you something and you want him to continue talking (without making such an effort yourself). Again, this gives you time to relax, think, and enjoy! How does it work? The moment someone tells you something, you pick one word from his sentence and simply repeat it with a question mark at the end. For instance, if you ask your friend: “How was your day?”. He may answer: “Agh, I’ve had such a busy day, I even had to reschedule some of my appointments“. The underlined words can be used as one word questions. They will explain you more about these words (and from their explanation you pick another word). “Busy day?”. “Yeah, every Friday is extremely busy. Today I had 5 appointments and a meeting. I didn’t even have time to finish my lunch, because my boss needed me again. “Again?”…. and so on. This way you don’t work hard at all, and you don’t need to feel insecure. At the same time you give the other a lot of attention and are strengthening your friendship. 
  3. Personal questions - Open-ended personal questions are very important. They take the conversation to another level, beyond superficiality. Questions like: “How did you two meet?”, ˝What is your favourite childhood memory?˝ invites the other person to talk about something personal, make that person feel ‘important’, and shows that you are interested in him. You can expect the same questions in return, so be prepared. Be aware that some questions are too personal to ask. Some people don’t like to talk about their past, especially, when it wasn’t a pleasant one.
  4. Personal information - By telling something about yourself (not too personal), your interests, or weekend activities, you invite the other person to ask some questions about it, or for them to share some personal information too.

Step 3: Switching off imagination for a more realistic view

Overcoming social anxiety is difficult when you have the feeling that others around you think you are fat, ugly, uninteresting, or blush/stutter often. This feeling can make you feel insecure, unimportant, and unwanted. Realize that these are merely thoughts, your thoughts. The problem with these thoughts is: you will look for evidence to support these thoughts. This means: you’ll misinterpret signs, gestures, and comments. And it will make you feel even worse. Try to challenge these thoughts with or without counselling. Ask yourself the question ˝what proof do I have for these negative thoughts?˝ And tell yourself whenever such a negative thought pops up: ˝I am only thinking …(negative thoughts)…, but I know it’s only a thought. This way you distance yourself from your thought.

What can I do to stop this?

You’re too focused on your own feelings, thoughts and behaviour. So the best thing you can do is to focus on everything but yourself. Pay attention to the way others are dressed, talk, and behave. Pay attention to what others are drinking, what the place looks like, and so on.

Step 4: Facing your fears

Overcoming social anxiety is impossible if you don’t expose yourself to those situations that cause you social anxiety. By avoiding events that make your anxiety levels rise, you never learn how to deal with those situations. Your anxiety will increase over time. And you will avoid even more fun social events in the future. So the best thing to do is to face your fears to make overcoming social anxiety less problematic.

The best thing to do is to take small steps to increase the chance of a successful experience and to boost your confidence. So write down a list of situations that are challenging and hard to overcome. Start with the easiest situation and end with the toughest one. Now before you start exposing yourself to these situations, please think of what you want to achieve in that specific situation. Again, don’t make it too hard for yourself, because one bad experience may increase your anxiety levels. For some people saying Hi to people on a party is a goal. Once you’ve achieved your goal, reward and praise yourself. You’ve done a great job!

Step 5: Changing your lifestyle to reduce anxiety

Changing your lifestyle may make overcoming social anxiety easier. Most people with social anxiety use alcohol, drugs, or other substances to calm down during social events. Usually, peer pressure makes anxious people turn to bad habits. Fortunately, these bad habits only have a temporary effect. On the long run, the disadvantages of these bad habits are far worse than the benefits. Despite the fact that you relax due to these bad habits, you still don’t learn how to cope with social events. The easiest way to overcoming social anxiety is to stay away from these bad habits, or to reduce their intake to a minimum. Here is an overview of these bad habits and their effect on anxiety:

  • Moderate alcohol intake: drinking alcohol reduces your inhibition and makes you feel more relaxed right before you go to an event. But at the same time alcohol increases the chance of getting an anxiety attack. On top of that, tipsy or drunk people often do things they later regret and that may increase social anxiety on the long run. Try to moderate your alcohol consumption.
  • Limit caffeine intake: caffeine intake increase symptoms of social anxiety. You can read more about it at: caffeine and mental disorders.
  • Quit smoking: although you may think that smoking a cigarette calms you down, this ain’t the case. Smoking cigarettes, or cigars, actually increase the symptoms of social anxiety.
  • Quit drugs: I will not even motivate this.
  • Get enough sleep: it’s tempting to stay awake late when you have to wake up early next morning, but sleep deprived people experience more anxiety.

It is clear that overcoming social anxiety while using drugs, alcohol, caffeine or when you are sleep deprived, is very difficult.

Step 6: Knowing when to search for professional help

Counseling helps you overcoming social anxiety effectively. The most effective method is Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Typically CBT for social anxiety focuses on: learning to control and reduce physical symptoms of social anxiety, learning coping skills, replacing negative thoughts for neutral or positive thoughts and gradual exposure to challenging events. Even though overcoming social anxiety  seems to be difficult, it is definitely worth it!