As kids we’re taught not to talk to strangers, then when we’re adults, we’re supposed to be suddenly good at it. Job interviews, networking events, and first dates all require us to be excellent at chatting up people we’ve just met. To get ahead in life, we need a skill we’re explicitly told not to develop as children. No wonder many of us are terrified in social situations.
But there’s a difference between lacking social skills and social anxiety. Where’s the boundary between a “normal” level and anxiety that severely and detrimentally affects your life? And what can you do when your anxiety keeps you from interacting with the world?
Everyone feels stressed, afraid, or anxious sometimes. When anxiety crosses over from typical to harmful is when feelings of anxiousness interfere with your life. When you have social anxiety, social interactions don’t just give you a little stomach fluttery feeling, they make you feel like you’re having a heart attack and could pass out at any moment. Anxiety is not the same as nerves.
If you regularly avoid social situations, including ones that can help your career or help you find love or friendship, you may have a serious anxiety issue.
Other signs you may have social anxiety include: desiring to run or hide when in a social situation, feeling you might faint, the sensation of heat spreading through your body, or suddenly drawing a blank when discussing topics you know about or forgetting answers to questions you’d usually be able to answer easily.
Here are five things you can do today to combat social anxiety:
1. Do what makes you feel comfortable in your skin.
Physical exercise and mindfulness exercises help to make us feel centered and ok just existing in our bodies. Wear clothing that makes you feel good about yourself, too. When you feel good about yourself, you’ll have more confidence, and that’ll make social situations just a tiny bit easier.
2. Stay away from caffeine and other things that make you feel jittery.
Foods or medications that increase your heart rate will automatically make you feel more anxious because they mimic the body’s natural response to anxiety. Stay away from foods and drinks with a lot of caffeine and talk to your doctor if you think a medication you’re taking might be contributing to your anxiety.
3. Give your body a natural energy boost.
Before you walk into a situation that you know will spike your anxiety, do some jumping jacks or jog in place for a minute. It’ll give you a surge of adrenaline, which will boost your mood and increase your confidence.
Another idea behind this technique is that when, a few minutes later, you’re meeting a person for the first time, you’ll know your heart is beating quickly because of physical exertion and not because of anxiety.
4. Invent useful mantras and practice self-talk.
Self-talk is also crucial in social situations that make you nervous. Come up with a couple of mantras you can repeat to yourself before and during interactions with others. Some I like: Feelings aren’t facts; anxiety can’t kill me. Deep down, everyone feels awkward sometimes. People are self-centered; they’re too busy thinking about themselves to be judging you.
5. Take a class in public speaking or acting.
This tip may be the hardest of all to try, but I think you’ll be amazed by the results. By taking a course in public speaking or an acting class, you get the experience of talking to people without the high stakes.
In a public speaking class, it’s highly likely you’ll meet others who also have some social anxiety. Not only are acting classes fun and a good way to make friends, they’re also an opportunity to practice talking to strangers without actually having to talk to strangers or even use your own words.
My last tip to people who think they may have social anxiety is to see a professional. In addition to writing books and articles like this one, I’m a therapist in Los Angeles. I work with many patients whose lives are harmed by anxiety.
I suggest to anyone who feels that their anxiousness is interfering with their life to talk to a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or medication can be the difference between a closed-off life and a joyful one.
About the author:
Andrea Brandt, Ph.D, MFT is a marriage and family therapist located in Santa Monica, CA. She brings over 35 years of clinical experience to the role of individual family therapist, couples counseling and anger management classes. She is a recognized expert in treating a full range of emotional issues, including anger and aggression; anxiety and depression; aging; relationships; work-life balance; and workplace and women’s issues. For more tips on how to turn negative beliefs into positive ones, visit her website and Psychology Today.