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How to fight social anxiety

How to fight social anxiety

Identifying your triggers, challenging negative thoughts, and professional help are all proven ways to help conquer social phobia.

Reviewed by:
Brenda Camacho, MD
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May 31, 2024
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Many of us experience butterflies in our stomachs in specific situations, like a first date, a public speaking engagement, or a networking event. We’re equal parts nervous and hopeful, and may even worry about being embarrassed. But when these feelings turn into fears of being rejected or negatively judged that affect our daily life it could be a sign of social anxiety disorder.  

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 15 million adults (or 7.1% of the U.S. population) experience social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia.  

There are many coping strategies for overcoming social anxiety from practicing grounding techniques at home to seeking therapy or treatment from a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. Here are thirteen of them.  

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1. Identify your triggers

A trigger is an agent, event, or situation that prompts an involuntary recall of a previous traumatic experience. For example, you may be triggered by someone placing their hand on your lower back while they scoot past you. You may feel uncomfortable by the uninvited touch and unsure about how to move forward. In that situation, you may want to turn your back to a wall so people walk in front of you instead of behind.  

To identify your triggers, keep a journal of your feelings and the situations that make you anxious. A cognitive behavioral worksheet can help you identify the situations outside of your comfort zone that cause you anxiety, and allow you to record your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. You’ll then record alternative (or desired) thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in a future similar situation.

2. Ground yourself  

Grounding yourself is the process of returning to the present moment through your surroundings. When we’re anxious, we’re filled with thoughts of fear and worry, most of which come from imagining the worst case scenarios. But oftentimes, those scary things don’t come true!  

Grounding and relaxation techniques, both physical and mental, can help you find pockets of safety in your environment. Physical grounding techniques connect you to your breath and senses, allowing you to take control of your body and strengthening your connection with the Earth. These techniques include taking deep breaths, smelling something pleasing and familiar, or eating sour candy to shut off your fight-or-flight response.  

Mental grounding techniques help you observe your thoughts and give you the power to change them. These techniques include visualizing yourself completing a task, practicing positive affirmations, or listening to soothing music. A physical and mental grounding technique that works well for many people is meditation.

Here are more grounding techniques for anxiety

3. Shift focus from yourself to others

Fear of social situations, or being judged by others at social events, can cause us to hyper-focus on ourselves and scrutinize our every move. Researchers have found that shifting your focus to others can help, especially if you fear being the center of attention or public speaking. Instead of succumbing to your thoughts, dive deeper into the conversation. Ask questions and show genuine interest in the person’s responses. This can reduce feelings and self-consciousness and ease social anxiety.

4. Learn to control your breathing

When our nervous system is triggered, it can be hard to take comfortable, consistent breaths. Taking the time to inhale deeply and exhale completely is a great way of grounding yourself in the moment. Think of yourself as a balloon: you blow yourself all the way up, then you let all the air out. A balloon would come back down to the ground as it deflates, and so will you.  

Engaging in deep breathing exercises can help calm your nervous system and reduce anxiety symptoms. When you feel anxious, try box breathing.  

  • Take slow, deep breaths, counting to four as you inhale.
  • Hold for four seconds.
  • Exhaling for another four seconds.  
  • Hold again for four counts.
  • Repeat as needed.

This coping strategy helps shift your focus away from anxiety-provoking thoughts and towards your breathing pattern, promoting relaxation.”

5. Challenge negative thought patterns

Negative thought patterns, or cognitive distortions, can look like catastrophizing or assuming the worst-case scenario will happen. It can also take the form of dismissing good things that happen to you, self-criticism, or self-blame.  

Reframing your thoughts is a great way to challenge these patterns. You can ask yourself:

  • Is this thought based on facts or feelings?
  • What’s the best thing that could happen?
  • What is this situation trying to teach me?  

Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones can reduce feelings of anxiety and calm your nervous system so you’re able to respond to the situation, rather than react to it.  

If you often feel like everyone is judging you, counter this by questioning the evidence for this belief and considering more balanced perspectives. This cognitive restructuring technique can diminish the power of irrational thoughts that fuel social anxiety.

6. Gradually expose yourself to social situations

Low-stakes social events, like a picnic in a park or an art museum visit, can be a great way to get yourself out there without exerting yourself too much. You can connect with others in plenty of ways like reading together, playing games, enjoying music or car rides, and going out to eat.

Slowly exposing yourself to social situations can help desensitize your anxiety. Start with less intimidating scenarios and gradually work your way up to more challenging social settings. For instance, begin with a small gathering of friends before attending a large party. If you’re afraid of speaking in front of others, try presenting before a group of close friends and loved ones to build up to public speaking in front of a large crowd. This incremental approach can help build confidence and reduce fear over time.

You can also work with a mental health professional on this through what’s known as exposure therapy.

7. Build your self-esteem and practice self-acceptance

Improving the way you see yourself can help manage your social anxiety. You can raise your self-esteem by tapping into your talents, setting achievable goals, and practicing self-compassion.  

Who knows what you’re good at more than you? If something doesn’t come to mind right away, think about what you love doing. Then, do more of that thing. Continue to remind yourself of your humanness. It’s  okay to have off-days. Self-acceptance is a great way to move confidently through social spaces. Think of what you love about yourself, and amplify it. If you like colorful clothing, for example, plan some outfits to look forward to. It can be as simple as that.

8. Check in with yourself after a social event

Social anxiety can activate the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the body to fight or run from a situation. Check in with yourself throughout a social event, and after, to see how you’re feeling. If you can, try to identify who and what environments make you feel the most comfortable. It might be the corner table at a crowded writing conference or the corner booth at the next open mic showcase.  

If you’d like, you can journal about the experience—good or bad—and reflect on the CBT exercise we mentioned in the first tip.

9. Take a break

If you’re not feeling comfortable in your social environment, allow yourself to take a break. Taking some time for yourself and getting a breath of fresh air can refresh your nervous system, allowing you to reset and reflect. If you’re feeling anxious, you can prepare what you’d like to say or do when you step back into the scene. How you feel about yourself is more important than what people think about you. If you find yourself in high-pressure or fast-paced environments, like work, make sure you’re taking a full lunch break.

10. Join support groups

Remember, you’re not alone. Millions of people struggle with anxious thoughts and feelings, and you may find solace in seeking support from others who can relate. Join support groups for managing social anxiety to teach and learn from others who can help.  You may even find a confidant in one of your co-workers who is experiencing a similar mental health condition.  

11. Work on your social skills

Enhancing your social skills can boost your confidence in social settings. Practice maintaining eye contact, actively listening, and engaging in small talk. “These skills can make social interactions feel more manageable and less anxiety-inducing,” says Smith.  

If maintaining eye contact with someone is a challenge for you, try staring at the space between their eyebrows when you speak to them—they can’t tell the difference.

You can also try these sentence starters when you’re in a social situation:

  • Are you working on any fun projects lately?
  • What was the last thing you did that you were really proud of?
  • How did you hear about this event?

12. Get professional help

In a survey conducted by the ADAA, 36% of people with social anxiety went untreated 10 years before seeking help. If you find that a fear of social situations leads to significant impairment in your day-to-day, then you may want to turn to a mental health professional.  

Physical symptoms of social anxiety—like panic attacks, trembles, or trouble sleeping—are obvious signs of the disorder, but not everyone will experience them. A psychiatrist can confirm whether you have this specific anxiety disorder and prescribe medications so you can start feeling better. Cognitive behavioral therapy from a licensed therapist can also be helpful for reconditioning your thought patterns and improving your symptoms, too.

Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network virtual care. Just complete the short online assessment, get paired with a psychiatrist within days. We’ll develop a treatment plan that’s personalized for your needs. Fill out this short assessment to schedule your first visit.

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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Brenda Camacho, MD

Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.

While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.

Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.

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