What Is Social Anxiety?
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No one feels comfortable going to a party where they don't know a soul, and having to give a presentation to a room full of executives can bring on a serious case of stomach butterflies. But most people can push past it, knowing that they'll end up having a good enough time or will score points with the boss, which outweighs the temporary discomfort. For those with social anxiety, though, the fear and discomfort can be crippling.
"The thing about social anxiety is it's unavoidable," says Greta Angert, a psychotherapist specializing in depression and anxiety in Beverly Hills, CA. "It's not like a fear of heights or planes, where you can choose to avoid the situation." Avoiding social interactions too often may keep that stress down, but it can also leave you passed over for promotions at work, or hiding at home so often that you slip into extreme loneliness—a serious risk to both your mental and physical health. (Related: 'I Didn't Leave My House For an Entire Year—Until Fitness Saved My Life.')
While, statistically, both sexes suffer from social anxiety almost equally, social anxiety disorder, which is characterized by an extreme fear of being scrutinized and judged by others in social or performance settings, sounds a lot like a mean-girl situation. "Social anxiety can be worse for women because we're harder on ourselves—and on other women," says Angert. "Plus, culturally, women are expected to be more friendly, more social, and more engaged in all situations."
Why You Need a Social Anxiety Strategy
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Most people with mild social anxiety cope by doing one thing: Busting out the booze. A recent study confirmed that when people with social anxiety drink, they feel more comfortable in social situations. It makes sense—one or two G+Ts can certainly help take the edge off, and James Gross, Ph.D., director of the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory, says doing so in moderation can be a healthy way for people to cope with anxiety. The challenge, though, is making sure you don't rely solely on alcohol. "If all you have is drinking, then you're going to overuse it," says Gross.
That's why he suggests turning to a variety of tools that can help keep social anxiety at bay. These expert-backed tricks can be a healthy way to start.
Join a Gym
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Exercise helps ease anxiety on both a biological and psychological level, according to a study analysis in Frontiers in Psychiatry. But a good sweat sesh at a gym or boutique studio has special perks for social anxiety in particular, says Gross. At the most obvious level, working out releases endorphins and other neurochemicals that put you in a more positive mood. Plus, since what you're worried about are evaluations from other people, working out boosts your self-confidence, he points out. (Here Are 5 More Ways to Improve Self-Esteem.)
Most importantly, perhaps, is that going to the gym lets you be social without actually interacting. "At a gym, you're around other people but you're still by yourself, either with headphones in or on a treadmill," says Gross. This can help you understand that you can be around other people without it feeling overwhelming. And eventually, you may feel comfortable enough to join a group fitness class, where there will be opportunities to chat with fellow classmates (if you so choose).
Tackle Small Social Interactions Often
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"Taking small steps to win against anxiety helps desensitize how scary socializing can be," says Gross. Give yourself small challenges—this week, start three small conversations, or force yourself to run a phone conference at work. "Just commenting on the weather to the supermarket clerk helps you experience success. Over time, you build and become more ambitious in what you're achieving." (Related: Anxiety-Reducing Solutions for Common Worry Traps.)
Work Out Right Before Going Out
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Working out not only helps you ease into social situations more often, but it gives you an immediate mood boost. "Being happy becomes an upward spiral—the opposite of what happens when you're anxious and hide out," he says. "When you're in a positive mood state, you're more likely to interact with others, which can then improve your mood further."
Plus, exercise helps bring your nervous system down from that high-energy state of anxiety, and that kick into calmness might be just enough to help you accept the invitation to go out with friends.
Give Yourself a Time Limit
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"If you're going to a bar for your friend's birthday, tell her you can only stay for 20 minutes," suggests Sarah Vinson, M.D., an Atlanta-based psychiatrist and member of the American Psychiatric Association's Communications Council. Social anxiety stems from feeling trapped, so knowing there's a finite end can help you get through the experience. Plus, setting a goal helps build confidence—you accomplished staying for 20 minutes, and next time you can build on that. (You Can Also Try These Essential Oils for Anxiety and Stress Relief When You Get Home.)
Worried the short stay will seem rude? "Think about times when people have left a party—you don't think they left because they're anxious. You assume it's because they have other plans," says Vinson. "We give people too much credit for understanding our emotions."
Talk Yourself Up
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In your car, in the Uber, even in the elevator before a party or meeting, give yourself a little pep talk the way you would to a friend, says Angert. "There is a self-fulfilling prophecy in how our internal dialogue plays out—the brain believes what you tell it," she says. 'I'm looking forward to this. I'm smart. I'm beautiful. I'm strong,' is going to set you up for success a helluva lot better than 'This is going to be so awkward, so scary.'
Use the Buddy System
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"Plan ahead and determine who you're going to know at the party," says Gross. Pairing up with people we trust can definitely help ease social anxiety—even more so if you give them a heads up: 'Bars can be a little stressful for me. Can I tag along with you for the night?'
If you don't know anyone, all hope is not lost. "Most people wait to initiate, which can be even more terrifying than talking to a stranger," says Angert. Scan the room and trust your gut—and consider talking to a wallflower. "A lot of people's inclination may be that the outgoing person is easy to talk to, but if you find someone who is more introverted, that may actually be a more interesting and in-depth conversation," says Vinson. "Then, that one person might last you the whole 20-minute stay, and you'll feel accomplished because you had the interaction without having to introduce yourself to strangers over and over." (PS: Here's Why You Should Stop Saying You Have Anxiety If You Really Don't.)
Prepare Flash Cards
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Okay, not literally. But you should go into a social event with some ideas of what you might want to talk about, says Vinson. "You may not even need to employ the plan, but knowing you have a backup can be comforting." Not sure where to start? Try these small-talk tips.
Avoid Being Glued to Your Phone
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The easiest way to distract yourself from an anxiety-inducing situation? Pull out your phone and avoid where you are. "It's complicated because you may feel so anxious that you need to turn to your phone, and then you do feel better, but it reinforces the behavior and instead of interacting, you spend the night on the phone," says Gross.
It's called a safety behavior—things that make you feel good but keep you from engaging in the way you want and need. You can lean on these crutches a little, but if you're going to push yourself through the discomfort of being at a party, try to actually get something positive out of the experience—which requires socializing with more than just Siri. (That Said, Science Says These Apps Fight Depression and Anxiety.)
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All our experts agree: When you start to feel especially anxious—racing heart, sweating, frantic thoughts—taking a break is your best bet. Excuse yourself and go to the restroom, go outside—wherever you can be alone. "Take a few minutes to calm down, give yourself praise for doing so well so far, and check in with friends who are supporting you," says Gross. "This can get you re-centered and back in business." Take breaks as often as you need, but keep in mind that spending all night in the bathroom isn't any better than spending it on the phone.
Practice a Mini Meditation
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The best way to use those few minutes of solitude mid-meeting or mid-party: Calm your nervous system. "Any form of mindfulness where you allow yourself to pause and be in your own body can help," says Angert. Even taking 5 minutes in a quiet setting, closing your eyes, and being conscious of your breath is enough to quiet the nervous system as much as a full meditation, she adds.
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If your heart starts racing at a moment where you can't easily slip away, employ basic breathing techniques, says Angert, which can help regulate and slow down your nervous system. Inhale for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, visualize the breath coming in through the body, and out through the body. Set an intention as you breathe, she adds: Breathe in what you're inviting in—calm, confidence, faith—and breathe out what you need to let go of—stress, fear, self-doubt.
Upgrade Your Screen Saver
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You can actually calm your nervous system with just a glance at your phone. "Looking at a photo that makes you smile or feel good will literally help your body relax and induce happiness," says Angert. Another option: Keep a mantra or positive affirmation in the notes section and sneak a peek when you're taking your 5 minutes away from everyone else. (Try one of these Pinterest-Worthy Workout Mantras to Power Every Part of Your Life.)
End On a High Note
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"It may seem counterintuitive, but you actually want to end the night when you feel a little more comfortable when you're having a good time," says Gross. If you've hit your goal—staying for 20 minutes, starting a conversation with one stranger—leaving after you've accomplished it, rather than waiting and letting panic drive you out, makes the whole situation seem not so scary, encouraging you to give something similar a shot in the future.
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Research from Stanford University has found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is extremely effective at reducing symptoms of social anxiety. And in fact, all of our experts recommended CBT if your anxiety controls your social calendar.
"CBT helps you identify negative thoughts, play them out, and think of alternative explanations," says Vinson. Your reaction may be, "That girl doesn't like me," but in reality, maybe she's not smiling at anybody in the room. "Even if someone isn't going to a therapist every week, they can learn about the principles of CBT and try and apply them. Questioning those automatic thoughts helps them not hold as much weight." (Did You Know This Weird Test Can Predict Anxiety and Depression Before You Experience Symptoms?)